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Pribilof Islands

 The islands were first visited by Europeans in 1786 by Gavriil Pribylov, who discovered the fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) rookeries for which they became famous, and thus became Russian territory. The islands passed to the United States in 1867 with the Alaska Purchase. From 1870 to 1890, the U.S. government leased them to the Alaska Commercial Company. From 1890 through 1910, the North American Commercial Company held the monopoly on seal-hunting there, but the industry shrank considerably owing to seal-hunting on the open sea.

The North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911 was signed by Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States to restrict hunting in the area. Under the Fur Seal Act[3] of 1966, hunting of the seals was forbidden in the Pribilofs, with the exception of subsistence hunting by native Aleuts.

A well-documented, but not particularly well known, example of Russian and American control of the lives of Unangax is that which occurred in the Pribilof Islands. Of the fur-bearing animals that Russians sought, none brought them more wealth than did the northern fur seal. With hairs packed at an astonishing 300,000 per square inch, fur seal skins have long been valued for their warmth and softness. Fur seals lead a pelagic (open ocean) life for much of the year, spent mostly in the North Pacific Ocean waters as far south as California. They come ashore from spring to fall to rest, give birth, and mate only in the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. For thousands of years, Unangax must certainly have understood this annual migration, as each spring fur seals swam northward through the island passes of the eastern Aleutians, returning southward in the fall along with their new pups. The abundant fur seal bones in precontact archaeological sites make it clear that Unangax frequently hunted these animals when they migrated past the archipelago.

When Russians arrived in the eastern Unangax region in the second half of the eighteenth century, they soon learned of the fur seals’ migratory movements past the islands. For some years, Russian skippers searched the Bering Sea north of the Aleutian Islands for the animals’ breeding grounds, efforts that came to fruition in 1786 and 1787, when they located St. George and St. Paul, the two main islands of the Pribilof Islands group. At that time, an estimated five million fur seals came to the Pribilofs each summer.

Almost immediately, Russians compelled Unangax from villages in the Aleutian Islands to travel seasonally to the Pribilof Islands to harvest fur seals. By the early 1800s, seasonal work camps transformed into permanent, year-round Unangax villages on both St. George and St. Paul. To a greater extent than elsewhere in the region (or anywhere in Alaska), the lives of the Unangax of St. Paul and St. George were dictated by the profit motives of those who controlled the fur seal harvest. During the American period, the federal government regulated most aspects of Unangax lives: marriages, movement to and from the islands, employment, and administration of justice. Unangax became wards of the government, as they remained until well after World War II.

Commercial fur seal harvesting, first for Russians and later for Americans (as an enterprise run by the federal government) served as the economic backbone of the islands until it ended in 1984. Since that year, fur seals may be harvested only by Unangax for their own food. Other economic endeavors, including halibut fishing and tourism, have been developed to replace the commercial fur seal harvest. Today, St. Paul is one of the largest Unangax communities in the region.

In a region devoid of large trees, it is not surprising that Unangax̂ built dwellings in large part of the earth itself. Houses were constructed in a semisubterranean fashion, literally, half underground. Excavations several feet deep and sometimes lined with rocks on the walls were roofed over with beams made from driftwood and long whale bones, such as those from the lower jaws, or mandibles. Over this framework, smaller pieces of wood and bone, grass, and, finally, a layer of living sod completed the structure, so that from the outside a house appeared like a small grassy hill. Side windows and doors were absent; instead, entry and exit were made through an opening in the roof, from which a notched log ladder descended to the central floor area. Large houses could have had multiple openings in their roofs to provide additional light and air circulation.

Inside these precontact Unangax̂ houses, families had their personal use areas around the immediate inside of the walls. These were separated from each other with woven grass mats. The central floor area was a communal activity area; in some houses, small sub-floor pits were dug for storage of food and other materials.





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