Our Way of Living
For almost 250 years, the Alutiiq people have endured powerful forces of change. Russian traders first came by ship in the 1760s in search of sea otters and other furs. Alutiiq warriors drove away most early Russian expeditions or forced them to trade on equal terms. But in 1784, Grigorii Shelikhov began his conquest of Kodiak Island and built a Russian outpost at Three Saints Harbor.
Alutiiq people were forced to work for the Russian fur companies. Men hunted sea otters and women sewed clothing and gathered food. Little time was left to meet basic needs in the villages. There was hunger and death from smallpox and other new diseases.
Over time, life in the Russian colony became less harsh. Russian customs, language, and Orthodox religion were gradually accepted. People of mixed Russian and Alutiiq heritage - known as Creoles - served as teachers, managers, explorers, and clergy.
The United States took control of Alaska in 1867. American companies continued the fur trade and built stores, salmon canneries, and mines. Starting in the 1890s, the government established public schools where the Alutiiq language was forbidden. Children were to be American - not Alutiiq. Scandinavians began coming to the region during the late 19th century to work as trappers and fishermen. They married into local families, adding another strand to Alutiiq culture.
In 1912, a huge volcanic eruption near Mt. Katmai forced residents to flee villages on the Alaska Peninsula and to resettle at Perryville and New Savonoski.
Alaska became a state in 1959. A few years later, in 1964, a large earthquake rocked the Gulf of Alaska region, and the villages of Afognak, Kaguyak, Old Harbor, and Chenega were destroyed by tidal waves. Earthquake survivors built the new villages of Chenega Bay and Port Lions. Another disaster struck in 1989, when oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill reached almost every Alutiiq community.
Through these centuries of change, Alutiiq people have adapted and survived. Contemporary communities are working together to learn about the past and to plan for the future. Arts, language, oral history, museums, archaeology, and education are all part of a growing movement to preserve Alutiiq culture. Today people speak of the Alutiiq Nation with pride.
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