The Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs came up with the first special report devoted to the human rights in the USA. The Russian State Duma held the hearings on October 22, 2012. The document contains multiple examples of racial and religious discrimination against the US citizens. The movie called Aleut Story has hit the screens recently. This is the story devoted to the horrible events of 1942, when the population of the Aleutian Islands and the island of Pribilof was replaced and interned. Even now few Americans have any idea it has taken place.
The story of Japanese internment is more or less known in the United States. In the 1940s Japan was the main enemy in the Pacific. Though the combat actions took place many miles away from the continental USA, 120000 Japanese were forcibly relocated from the West Coast and interned. Over 60% of them were US citizens.
Anti-Japanese sentiments were at the height. No wonder: at the beginning of the 1990s the legislation in some states forbade Asia – White intermarriage. The Japanese were moved over and compared to vermin. More extreme depictions of Japanese included picturing them as a bloodthirsty and mean people. I emphasize the story is related to the Americans of Japanese origin, not the Japanese who lived in Japan. Even orphans who had more than 1/16 of Japanese blood were rounded up! The Japanese were taken away from the West Coast deeper into the continent and relocated to live in barracks unfit for accommodating many people and standing up to harsh winters. Whoever dared outside risked to get a bullet fired by guard.
After the Japanese bombing of Dutch Harbor in Unalaska in 1942, the Alaska’s Aleuts followed the fate of Japanese Americans. The U.S. government required anyone with one-eighth of Aleut blood or more to be evacuated from the islands. Nobody told them where they were taken to. They were just forcibly moved to ships and taken to special camps (in all there were four of such locations). The living conditions were terrible: hunger, cold, deceases, death…
L.C. McMillin, agent and caretaker of the Pribilof evacuation camp at Funter Bay, sent a letter to the superiors expressing indignation over the natives’ living conditions. It was returned and the agent was reprimanded. The authorities had no wish to know about the suffering the Aleuts were going through.
It was no better at Kilisnoo. The interned had to drink muddy water and brave the Alaska colds in unheated barracks. It was not the federal government but rather the Tlingit Indians, who came to their help. They shared blankets, salt and medicine. The attempts to render any large scale humanitarian aid were stopped by authorities, the petitions sent by Aleut women begging for a chance to warm up and feed their children were left without reply. Kilisnoo was notorious for the highest death rate among the interned. In Burnett Inlet, the Aleuts were made live in the houses, abandoned by workers of the canning factory, that was deserted many years ago. The factory functioned only during warm seasons so there was no heating in the houses. There were decayed walls, no beds, water supply, electricity and flocks of hungry wolves hanging right around the walls by night.
In three weeks after the relocation, William Zakharov (!), head of Aleut community, sent a complaint to local authorities asking to improve living conditions. There were many more complaints to follow, but it was only in 1945 the Barnett Inlet inmates could return to find their cozy homes in Unalaska pillaged by US soldiers.
The Ward Lake camp was notorious. It was surrounded by impassable brushwood, the nearest town was only about eight miles away, but the Aleuts couldn’t get there. The living conditions were no better than in other internment camps, a couple of barracks humid inside, no light, no water, a few sheds in the yard and a tiny latrine, one for all, close to the place destined for taking meals.
In all four camps there was mass infection of tuberculosis, pneumonia, and skin deceases. Everyone was affected – adults and children. The food supply was only 20% of what was required. People were dying of hunger and lack of medical care (1).
No matter weak, men were coerced to work at sea fisheries. They became slaves, in case of refusal they were threatened to remain in the camps forever with their families (2). The Aleuts tried to find additional income, some place where they would not have to work for nothing, but federal authorities were vigilant enough to make them stay where they were. The mass requests for permission to work, so that men could feed their families, were refused. The authorities used everything sparingly: food, construction materials, medicine. The Aleuts paid with their lives.
The US soldiers pillaged not only homes, but churches as well. They were predominantly Greek Orthodox ones. Historically the Aleuts have come under Russia’s cultural influence, they have stalwart faith in their church. Peter the Aleut is venerated as saint being tortured and killed by Spaniards in 1815 for refusing to convert into Catholic faith. The story became known to the world thanks to testimony of Ivan Kiglay, an Aleut port worker from Kadiak, who managed to free himself from captivity. It strikes an eye how many Aleuts, interned by Americans, had Russian names, like: Lestenkov, Prokopiev, and Zakharov, for instance.
Today some of Aleuts today visit the graves of their predecessors who couldn’t live through the internment. The witnesses of those distant events are sure the cruel treatment of American Aleuts, the same way as in the case of American Japanese, was not explained by exigency of wartime, but rather racial prejudice.
The Aleut story is a narrative of forced internment, of the fact, that even after dozens of years have passed, those who have suffered, can’t get any compensation, or even apologies, from the US powers that be. Talking about public response to the film, looks it mainly touched those, who have direct relation to the events, those who study the local history and a bunch of media men who have written about it. The fact, that it was not the Japanese only, but the Aleuts as well, who suffered from internment, has not become the knowledge of public at large. The Aleut story got lost in the ocean of US film industry production.