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The present self-designation aleut was first suggested by the Russians who reached the Aleutian Islands in 1741 during an expedition led by V. Bering. Written sources have used the name since 1747 and gradually it has been adopted by the Aleuts. Final consolidation of the name took place in the first decades of this century. According to G. Menovshchikov the name is derived from an Aleut word allíthuh meaning 'community; host'. The old self-designation unangan evidently applied to the eastern Aleuts only, meaning probably 'coastal people' (K. Bergsland). Local groupings and inhabitants of different islands are known to have also used other names for themselves.

Habitat. The Aleut people are the native inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands, the southwestern part of the Alaskan peninsula and the off-shore islands of Shumagin. Since the beginning of the 19th century there have been resettled Aleuts living on Commander Islands (Bering and Mednyi) which are under Soviet jurisdiction. The Aleut District in the Kamchatka Region was established in 1932. In 1969 the Aleuts of those two islands were gathered to live in Nikolskoye, Bering Island.

Population. In the middle of the 18th century, when Russians first explored the place, the islands were nearly all inhabited. The number of the Aleuts was estimated at approximately 25,000. Mass murder and enslavement of the natives reduced their numbers drastically. According to the data supplied by the missionary I. Veniaminov in 1834 there were less than 2,500 Aleuts left. The 1918 epidemics of smallpox and grippe took a further toll. In 1945 the anthropologist A. Hrolicka estimated the number of Aleuts at about 1,400. Nowadays the world number of the Aleuts is believed to be about 6,000. Part of the Eskimos of southeastern and southern Alaska also consider themselves Aleut. In the 1970s there were about 500 Aleuts living on the Commander Islands, but by 1984 their number had dropped to 300. On the US part of the Aleutian Islands a census was carried out in 1960 according to whose data there were 2,100 Aleut (mostly half-bred) who made up 35 % of the local population. On Commander Islands the number of Aleuts has fluctuated as follows:


Anthropologically Aleuts are close to the Eskimo people belonging to the mongoloid Arctic race. Their mingling with other types often emphasized in academic literature is evidently not well grounded. Newer results prove that despite the historical heterogeneity of the Commander Aleuts their genetic structure is Aleut.

Origin. The Aleut people were believed to have first arrived on the Aleutian Islands from the coast of northeastern Asia or from Alaska, not earlier than 3,000 years ago. Latest research suggests that the aleuts arrival must have happened considerably earlier. Now the settlement of the Aleutians is associated with the time when there was still a land connection between America and Asia, that is, no later than 10--12 thousand years ago.

Language. The Aleut language, belonging to the Eskimo-Aleut languages, is considered as a member of the Paleo-Asiatic group. According to incomplete data the Aleut language can be divided into three dialects: Attu (Western), Atka and Unalaska (Eastern). The differences are small and do not impede mutual intelligibility. The present-day Aleuts are bilingual. The American Aleuts speak English, while the Asiatic Aleuts had already been russified by the beginning of the 19th century.

According to G. Menovshchikov the Aleuts of Bering Island speak the Atka dialect with a well-preserved basic vocabulary and grammatical structure. The version previously used on the Mednyi (Copper) Island was of the Attu dialect. In addition the strong Russian influence has produced a strange pidgin where verbs are conjugated by means of Russian suffixes, etc. Menovshchikov has suggested that the pidgin which is still spoken to a certain extent on Mednyi Island was at one time a lingua franca for Russians and the Aleut people.

Although the Aleut language has relatively much in common with Eskimo languages, the grammatical and lexical differences are considerable. The glotto-chronological method dates the linguistic divergence of the Aleut and the Eskimo peoples as at least 1000--2000 years back. Common developments can be traced in the phonology and word structure, but there are very few common roots in the lexis of the two languages. It is believed that the phonology of Aleut is more ancient than the Eskimo language.

The linguistic and cultural influence of Russian started to make itself felt by the 18th century. By the beginning of the 19th century practically all Aleuts living on Russian territories had been converted to Russian Orthodoxy. This was an efficient means of checking the local culture and language. On Bering Island the Russian influence has not penetrated to grammar yet, but some of it has been noticed in the vocabulary. The inhabitants of Mednyi Island are very much isolated from the remaining Aleut area. Nowadays their ordinary means of communication is Russian. Aleut has been preserved fragmentarily by the older members of but a few families but in general Aleut has receded before Russian.

Another strong wave of Russian swept over the islands during the Soviet period. Many Aleuts have left their native islands in search of better education. Ethnically pure marriages are rare, in most cases the spouse is found among another nation. According to R. Lyapunova the number of Aleuts living at Nikolskoye, Bering Island is about 300. About 200 live elsewhere, mostly on the Kamchatka peninsula. The same author points out that outside their own native islands the half-bred Aleuts refrain from calling themselves Aleut, but returning home they resume their ethnic identity.

History. Aleuts are the native inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands. Their contacts with Europeans date from the middle of the 18th century when their habitats were invaded by Russian sailors, tradesmen and businessmen. The invaders' predatory colonial policies doomed the local Aleut culture to abortion and the Aleut people to physical extinction. In 1799 the Aleut areas fell under the administration of the Russian-American Company. Beginning in 1825 the Company forcefully resettled Aleuts from several of their traditional areas to the then empty islands of Bering (mainly from Atka and Andreyan), Mednyi (from Attu a.o. islands) and Pribylov. The first 17 Aleut families moved to Bering Island were told to hunt sea otters there. In 1821 the Aleut were termed as the islanders who had to work for the Company from the age of 18 to 50. Although in 1844 the obligation was officially repealed the situation remained the same. The Aleut people were converted to Russian Orthodoxy and subjected to Russian cultural influence. In 1867 Alaska and the Aleutian Islands were sold to the USA, while the Commander Islands remained under Russian jurisdiction in the Kamchatka Petropavlovsk Area.

Life on the Commander Islands was extremely isolated. Only one or two ships used to visit the place during the navigable period. Neither was there much communication between the two islands. In 1897 the non-Aleut population made up 10 % of the inhabitants of both islands together, the rest being either Aleut or their successors. According to S. Patkanov Aleut was spoken also by 14 Ainus. On Mednyi Island 35 % of the inhabitants termed themselves Aleut, the remaining 65 % said they were half-breeds (of an Aleut mother). It was also possible that the percentage of half-breeds was lower, but as the people were already suffering from an ethnic inferiority complex they felt the status of a half-breed to be more dignified. Nevertheless they are reported to have adhered to Aleut traditions and spoken the Aleut language. According to Russian authors (N. Grebnitsky, B. Dybovsky, N. Voloshinov a.o.) the physical extinction of the Aleut people started in 1871 when the Commander Islands were leased to American businessmen for 20 years. It was then that the Europeanization of the traditional Aleut life-style began. With their earnings, which were not insubstantial, especially on Mednyi, they are reported to have bought clothes unsuitable for the local conditions, moved to live in the so-called American houses that were not warm enough, etc. In 1891 Russia refused to prolong this rather profitable contract fearing total Americanization of the natives. Although the American rule was declared extremely unfavourable for the Commander Aleuts it was with its end that the real trouble began. The Russian merchants who, according to the new lease, became masters of the island drove the Aleuts to wasteful hunting of sea mammals on an unprecendented scale paying them with trifles and alcohol (even though the importing of alcohol to the islands was prohibited by law). It was now that the final extinction of the people became a real danger. In 1899, for example, as many as 12 % of the islanders died. Famine brought by the Civil War period increased the mortality rate even more.

In 1928 the Aleut National District was established on the Commander Islands, with its centre in Nikolskoye, Bering Island. The relative stabilization of the situation, however, was not sufficient for a rapid growth of the Aleut population. This was due to some serious diseases, especially tuberculosis that had infected 20 % of the population, and chronic alcoholism. It was only in 1935 that an increase in the population occured. Yet new plagues were on their way in. In the 1930s labour started to be imported from the mainland, while the Aleut people began to leave their native islands for non-Aleut environments. In 1969 all the remaining Aleuts were forced to move to Nikolskoye. At present the number of new settlers surpasses that of the Commander Aleuts fivefold.

Ethnic culture. The Aleut people have always derived their livelihood from the hunting of sea mammals (seals, fur-seals, etc.) and fishing. In the severe polar conditions the gathering of everything edible was also of great importance. Hunting and fishing gear was made of stone, bone and wood. Family relations were characterized by polygamy (both ways), giving away children to uncles to foster, and the mutual exchange of children.

According to traditional practice the catch and game belonged to the whole community, not to the hunter and his family only. The dwellings were half-earthen and large. Male as well as female clothing was made of animal and bird skins. Mats and baskets woven of grass were popular in every household. Traditional food consisted of the meat of sea mammals and seabirds, fish (eaten raw) and molluscs.

The sources of Russian cultural influence were the Russian administration, the Russian Orthodox Church and the parochial school. Folk art (pantomime dances, for example) still survived, but were practised in jealously guarded secrecy for fear of Russian disparagement.

Nowadays mink-farming and cattle-breeding as well as horticulture have developed in addition to the traditional branches of economy.

Those Aleuts who were forcefully resettled to the Commander Islands had to accommodate their life-style to the local natural conditions. There the winters are colder and there is more snow than on the Aleutian Islands. The inhabited northern part of Bering is just flat tundra, and Mednyi is rocky. New means of transport -- the dog harness (also in summer) were introduced.

Nowadays folk culture survives to a certain extent thanks to the Museum of Local Lore, Children's Art School and a folklore ensemble.

Writing. The Aleut people became an object of research following the Russian occupation. The initiative belonged to the missionary I. Veniaminov. Nowadays extensive research projects are under way in the USA. An Aleut writing system with its base the Cyrillic alphabet, was devised in the 19th century by I. Veniaminov and V. Metsvetov. As on Bering Island there was a parochial school (belonging to the Russian-American company), and nearly all adult men could read and write in Russian. In addition there was always a native Aleut around teaching children the same skills in the Aleut language. In 1867 when the Aleutian Islands were ceded to the USA the writing system fell into disuse. The teaching of the Aleut language to the US Aleuts was resumed in the middle of the 1970s only.


  1. W. Jochelson, History, Ethnology and Anthropology of the Aleut, New York 1966
  2. И. Вениаминов, Опыт грамматики алэутско-лисьевского языка, С. Петербург 1846
  3. Р. Г. Ляпунова, Очерки по этнографии алэутов, Ленинград 1975
  4. Г. А. Меновщиков, Эскимосско-алэутские языки. Распространение и классификация. -- Младописьменные языки народов СССР, Москва -- Ленинград 1959
  5. Г. А. Меновщиков, Топонимическая стратегия алэутских островов АТХА и АМЛЯ по источникам середины ХIХ в. -- Палеоазиатские языки. Сборник научных трудов, Ленинград 1986
  6. Языки Азии и Африки. Т. 3, Москва 1979
  7. Языки народов СССР. Т. 5, Ленинград 1968


akhvakhs | aleuts | altaics