Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Aleuts

The scattered archipelago of three hundred rocky islands far out in the Pacific Ocean was your home for eight thousand years. You called yourself Unangan, and your community of twenty five thousand people lived by hunting sea otter and fishing.

In 1741, Russian explorers ‘discovered’ you. They called you Aleuts, and sent back news of rich hunting grounds. Russian fur traders descended on your islands, forcing you to hunt for them. When they ‘discovered’ sea cows, they ate them in such numbers that within twenty seven years they were extinct.

You tried to resist, mounted a revolt, but their brutality and mainland diseases diminished your population to less than a tenth of its original number. You were slaves. You killed more and more otters until they were ‘commercially extinct’ and otter hunting was banned in 1911.

For a while, conservationists were overjoyed to see otter numbers increasing. But today over-fishing has depleted herring and pollock stocks so badly that it has caused sea lion numbers to drop, and killer whales, deprived of their usual prey, are hunting sea otters into a second wave of extinction.

Eleven thousand Aleutian islanders claim Aleut ancestry, but no full-blooded Aleuts survived the Russian occupation.