June 29, 2006

A Dream of Freedom on St. Paul Island

I stumbled on this brief, locally-written, heartbreaking history of St. Paul island in the Bering Sea; it suggests that the Aleuts and local Creoles, transplanted there by Russian oppressors for the seal trade(there's no other word), were not truly emancipated until the 1960's. Relocated to a concentration camp in SE Alaska in WWII, 10% of the population, American citizens all, died. But with the proximity of Juneau, this lead to their eventual emancipation:

From this point on, the Aleut Communities of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea fought for their freedom—they secretly hired a lawyer and began suing for it. Though life on the islands after WWII continued with the industrial model, the workers lobbied steadily and conditions began to improve. In 1966 the Fur Seal act reestablished the Pribilof Islands as a Federal Reservation and for the first time Aleuts were permitted on and off the island at will and entitled to fair wages making them perhaps the final enslaved people in our nation to become free.
The Aleuts, once a culture of 20,000 with elaborate tombs and a highly complex marine technology, number about 2500 now. The immediate expansion of the fur trade, which was the direct result of the extraordinary wealth that was being produced, was enslavement and effectively genocide, and it took nearly 200 years for the remaining people of the island to recovery a measure of their independence.


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