The Aleutians East Borough was formed in 1987 when the communities of Akutan, Cold Bay, False Pass, King Cove, Nelson Lagoon, and Sand Point joined together as a single administrative unit. The history of each community is unique. Nevertheless, there is a historical continuity recognized and perceived by virtually the entire populations, which is bound by ties of kinship, friendship, and common ideals.
The history of Akutan can be traced to the middle of the 18th century. Cold Bay was formed during World War II and owes it continued existence to its role as the aviation hub for southwestern Alaska. King Cove and False Pass started out as cannery settlements, and Nelson Lagoon formed in the 1960s around a newly created school, which was closed in 2012. Sand Point emerged as the major social center in the Shumagin Islands in the wake of World War II, traces its origins from Sanak and the communities settled in the late 19th century. Aleut, also called Unangan, and Euroamerican sea otter hunters first settled in these villages. Later the emerging commercial fishing industry drew population there.
Sand Point is home for the Unga Tribal Council that represents the Unga population, the Pauloff Harbor Tribe (formerly known as the Sanak Tribe), and the Qagan Tayagungin Tribe of Sand Point. Euroamerican immigrants have been integrated into most Borough communities in the course of their complicated histories and in Cold Bay they predominate. But even here, where the majority of the population is transient job seekers, a number of long term residents maintain a strong sense of identity with Sand Point and several other Borough communities.
Many Borough communities are located just outside or near the boundaries of national wildlife refuges. There are two wildlife refuges on the Alaska Peninsula: the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge and the Izembek National Wildlife Refuges. In addition, Unimak Island, the Sanak Island group, and Akutan are within the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
The populations of all the communities are ethnically diverse, with the relative proportion of Aleuts and Euroamericans varying from community to community. In Akutan, False Pass, and Nelson Lagoon the Aleut population is in overwhelming majority; in Sand Point and King Cove the numbers are move evenly matched; in Cold Bay, the population is overwhelmingly of Euroamerican origin. As a rule, the majority of Euroamericans are in administrative positions, employees of federal, state, and municipal agencies, and the educational system. Very few claim lifelong, much less two or even three generations’ residence in the area.
All of the Borough communities were affected most profoundly by the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Since the passage of this act, the Aleut population was organized into local corporations. Individuals are also shareholders in the Aleut Corporation. Under the Act, the Aleut Corporation, the local village corporations, and the individuals, are entitled to reclaim land. In addition, nonprofit corporations were established within each community. These have less clearly defined mandate, but function to enhance education, housing, health, and cultural survival of the people. Since 1971, most of the local Aleut communities became recognized as tribes under the 1936 amendment to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, known as the “Alaska Reorganization Act.” The most recent of these is the Unga Tribe, which was established in 1993 by the U.S. Federal Government.
With the exception of Cold Bay, the local population depends on the fishing industry, either as fishermen or as processing plant employees. There are also opportunities for employment in the service and administrative sector. These include leadership and administrative positions in Native organizations. However, the overwhelming majority also heavily utilize the traditional subsistence resources of their localities. These are fish, sea mammals, mollusks, and shell fish in variety, fur bearers, caribou, wild fowl, berries, and some medicinal wild plants. Fishing rights and local resource utilization for subsistence purposes are the main economic and civil rights issues concerning the local population; education and preservation of cultural heritage are the two main social issues.
The Aleutians are a chain of volcanic islands extending for about 1,400 miles. Within the island chain are 57 Quaternary volcanoes, of which at least 27 are active. There are several active volcanoes within the Borough, five of them on Unimak Island. The most famous are the Akutan Volcano on Akutan Island, Pogromni, Isanotski, and Shishaldin on Unimak, and Veniaminof, Pavlof and Pavlof’s Sister on the Alaska Peninsula. Shishaldin is the highest of these peaks, at over 9,000 feet. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are a hazard. Ash fall can cover plant growth on which land animals depend, and shock streams, suffocating the f[i]ish and marine mammals, thus compromising the local subsistence resources.
The coastlines along the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula, Unimak Island, Akutan and offshore islands, including the Shumagin Island group, are extremely rugged and dangerous for navigation, and the sea is deep. The Bering Sea side of the Alaska Peninsula and Unimak Island is low and flat, and the offshore sea is shallow.
Adak, Alaska, also known as the birthplace of the winds, is part of the Aleutian Chain. Aleuts occupied Adak historically. Once heavily-populated, the island was eventually abandoned in the early 19th century as hunters followed the Russian fur trade eastward, and famine set in. The resilient Aleuts continued to actively hunt and fish around the island over the years, until World War II broke out when the island was developed as a naval air station, playing an important role during the Cold War as a submarine surveillance center. At its peak, the station housed over 6,000 naval and Coast Guard personnel and their families. The station officially closed in 1997.
Whittier, Alaska is the Gateway to Prince William Sound. This area originally was part of the portage route for the Chugach Natives, also known as Alutiiq or Sugpiaqs, of Prince William Sound traveling to fish the Turnagain Arm. Later the Russians and Americans exploring the region also used this passage. It was used by prospecting miners during the gold rush as it was the quickest passage from the Sound to the Cook Inlet and Interior regions. The city itself is a historical area, established by the U.S. Army during World War II. The Federal railroad to Portage was completed in 1943 and became the primary debarkation point for cargo, troops, and dependents of the Alaska Command. The tunnel to Whitter is the longest tunnel in North America.
[i] The History and Ethnohistory of the Aleutians East Borough, by Lydia T. Black, The Limestone Press, Fairbanks, Alaska 1999.