Aleut / Unangan Culture
Aleut, a name given to the Unangan by the Russian fur traders, but who prefer to be called Unangan, are people who have had to and still currently rely on the sea for their livelihood. Unanga means the original people and Unanganin is the plural form. Unangan is another traditional name for them. Unanangan means Seasider. Unangax^ is the plural form for Unangan.
Traditionally, Aleut Unangan men were the ones who hunted the seals, whales, sea lions, sea otters, sometimes walrus, and in some areas they were the ones who hunted the caribou and bears. The Aleut Unangan women were in charge of gathering fish, birds, wild plant foods, and mollusks. The wild plant foods included berries and the weaving of fine grass basketry. Baidarkas are a one-man and two-man skin boat, these Baidarkas, along with kayaks, or large, open, skin boats were what the Aleut Unangan men used for hunting. Ivory, stone, and bone were all used in multiple ways. This included being incorporated into designs on containers, oil lamps, needles, awls, and other objects.
The first encounter that the Aleut Unangan people had with the Russian people colonizers was in 1741. This encounter happened when Vitus Bering led the expedition to the Aleutian Islands. Following the encounter, the Russians quickly established control, which can be attributed to a large party of Russian and Siberian hunters who caused severe damageinjuries and death of the people in the Aleutian Islands in 1745 while they overwintered (spent the winter). Subsequent of the overwintering of the hunters, Russian courts found some hunters of the group guilty of cruelty.
Decades later the Russian trading companies treated the Aleut Unangan people as they treated their own rural people, as serfs (labor bound under the feudal system). Their labor was not tied to agriculture; it was tied to fur production. The Aleuts’ Unangans’ traditional ways of life had been heavily disrupted from the Russians by the 1830s. In the later 19th century more disruption occurred to the Aleuts’ Unangans’ ways of life due to the discovery of gold in Alaska. The discovery of gold in Alaska drew many prospectors to the region. Due to being under foreign control, the Aleut Unangan population had dramatically declined from a population of approximately 25,000 to 2,000 by the end of the 19th century.
By the late 20th century the Aleut Unangan people were bringing back many traditional cultures. These traditional cultures were subsistence hunting and gathering practices, crafts, and their language. Today, most Aleuts Unangan peoples live a subsistence lifestyle. This includes fishing, hunting, and gathering berries. During the summer months, a large number of Aleut Unangan families spend their time harvesting traditional foods and preserving them for the winter.