When the Russians reached the Aleutian islands in 1741 almost every island was inhabited with Aleuts. The Aleuts are distant relatives of the coastal Eskimos. The Aluets shared their homes with many families and the matrilineal line, like many other Native cultures. This means that when a man married a woman sometimes all of her relatives would come and live with him. One difference between the Aleuts and other native cultures is the Aleuts built underground homes. The Aleuts lived in permanent villages.
The Russians virtually enslaved the Aleut men. The Russians wanted the rich furs, and since the Aluets knew how to get them they made them hunt for them. Within 75 years of Russian domination 80% of the Aleuts had died. Most of them died due to the introduction of new diseases into their culture. Previously they had been so isolated that disease was not a major concern for them. Now it was devastating to them.
Today there are about 8,000 Aleuts alive. And there are only a few permanent Aleut settlements left.
To build an Aleut house, called a barabara, they would start by digging a rectangle in the ground, no more then fifty feet long and twenty-five feet wide. Then they would build the roof using driftwood and whalebone. Over that they would put sod and moss. Inside the house they portioned off rooms for the separate age groups occupying that house. Usually extended families (cousins, aunts, etc.) shared a house. They would dig trenches inside the separate rooms and line them with fur, that was where everyone worked and played. Inside the main hall there was a trench along one wall that was used as a common bathroom. They would soak skins in it to try and help reduce the smell.
Aleuts wore clothing made from bird skin and sometimes the furs of otters, sea lions and fur-seals. Men wore parkas, called kamleikas, without hoods made from the bird skin, and in cold weather they would wear gut skin parkas over the shirts. The women wore similar kamleikas, only they were usually made out of the fur from a fur-seal. Boots were made from sea lion flippers and fur-seal hide. They extended the boot up the leg to the thigh using seal esophagus. This made a very durable waterproof boot. Often they carried their boots to save from wearing them out. They very rarely wore pants.
For meat Aleuts ate sea lion, sea otter, whale, and fur-seal. They sometimes supplemented this with salmon, cod, halibut, red snapper, clams, crab, bear, caribou, rabbits, sheep, goats, and bird's eggs. They often ate their meat raw. They dried the fish for storage. During famines Aleuts lived on seaweed and shells.
© Copyright 1997 Elizabeth Beckett and Sarah Teel
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