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An Aleutian Ethnography

An Aleutian Ethnography


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Lucien Turner was a pioneering nineteenth-century ethnographer whose study of Aleut communities surpassed the work of all of his contemporaries, and now his rare writings are collected here for the first time. Turner’s admittedly fragmentary ethnographic notes, which chronicle his complete immersion in three Aleut communities, reveal valuable insights into Aleutian cultures and the outsiders who lived among them in the nineteenth century. Carefully edited by Ray Hudson, An Aleutian Ethnography is an essential resource for scholars of American history and history of anthropology alike.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602230392
Publisher: University of Alaska Press
Publication date: 02/15/2010
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Lucien Turner was a pioneering nineteenth-century ethnographer.

Ray Hudson lived in the Aleutian Islands for nearly thirty years. He currently lives in Middlebury, Vermont.

Read an Excerpt

An Aleutian ethnography

By Lucien M. Turner


Copyright © 2008 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60223-039-2

Chapter One

General Description of the Aleutian Islands

Without a description of the physical features of the area under consideration it will be impossible to arrive at a proper conception of the geographical factors influencing the people whose characters are set before us by their works and not by their words. The Aleutian Islands form a vast chain, more or less disconnected, extending east and west from longitude about one hundred and sixty-three degrees west of Greenwich to longitude nearly one hundred and eighty-seven and a half west of Greenwich. The central portion of the chain decurving southerly and all of the islands embraced within the parallels of fifty-five and fifty-one and a half degrees north; so that the length of the entire chain from the western end of the mainland at Isanotsky (or "False") Pass to the western end of Cape Wrangell, the westernmost land of the United States, is slightly more than 1000 miles when following the trend of the chain. The north and south breadth of the area is scarcely more than two hundred miles. [73-74]

* The principal islands of the chain have their longer axis nearly in the same direction as that of the decurvature of the entire chain, the shorter axis lying to the eastward of north. The islands in the central part present a slight exception to these directions. [C:14]

* The peninsula of Aliaska is simply a continuation of the Alaskan Mountains, forming a comparatively long, narrow strip of land, extending nearly northeast and southwest. It is very mountainous, much broken into short ranges, usually several peaks on a wide base, or else isolated mountains often of great height, the portion of those over 2,800 feet high being destitute of vegetation. These mountains are quite abrupt on the southern side, and have numerous bays, coves, and arms of the sea thrust among them, even to their bases. The northern shore of the peninsula of Aliaska is a low, varied strip of land, a few miles to a few rods in width, the eastern end of the north side being generally wider and of less elevation, somewhat approaching the general characters of the tundras of the Yukon District. The Aleutian Islands are but an interrupted continuation of the Aliaskan Peninsula. [C:14]

An inspection of a map of Alaska will reveal the fact that the Aleutian Islands are simply a prolongation of the Rocky Mountains, bending to the westward and interrupted by precipitous breaks, of greater or less width in their trends, and finally continuing through the eastern portion of Asia. The general features of the chain are essentially the same, the principal differences consisting in the variable heights of the land, ranging from few feet above sea-level to towering mountain tops lifting their heads many thousand feet. The limit of perpetual snow is but little above 1800 feet and the summits of the higher peaks seldom change the white mantle that glistens in the few hours of absent clouds hovering around the loftier heights. [74-75]

The shores are mostly abrupt or precipitous, difficult of approach except where the deeply indented coast has preserved the falling masses of rock and stones rolled into shingle and boulders of all sizes by the constant lashings of the sea waves impelled by the relentless fury of an ever changing atmosphere producing violent storms of long duration that cause the very foundations of the mountain bases to tremble under the crushing impetuosity of the surging billows of an ever angry ocean. [75-76]

The geological characters of these islands have been repeatedly described by others and need not be referred to here. Each of the larger islands has the same extension as the entire chain or from east to west; the larger islands usually beginning or ending with islets of small size and often barren rock only. Many deep indentations extend into the larger islands often nearly cutting them in two, connected by low swales of but few feet above sea-level. The central portion of the islands are mountainous and of every possible diversity of surface; ravines of many hundred feet on either side slope toward the sea and through them course streams proportionate to the amount of snow melting and draining into the valley below. The central islands of the chain are somewhat less abrupt and precipitous on their shores than the eastern islands. The extreme height of the mountains somewhat less and so continuing to the westward where the water passages are wider and the sea less violent. [76-77]

* These islands are, generally speaking, very mountainous (among them several active volcanoes, some of them very high), their sides generally abrupt, containing innumerable indentations, such as deep bays and coves-these more abundant on the northern and eastern sides than on the southern and western. (Nearly all the anchorages, and the villages, with few exceptions, are on the north and east sides of the islands.) There is but little level ground on any of the islands, that little being formed at the entrance to the larger valleys flanked by high mountains on either side, from which descend innumerable small streams from the summits of the mountains crowned, in most instances, with eternal snows. These streams unite to form creeks of slight depth and width, having a short course before they reach the sea. Lakes of variable size are to be found on nearly all the islands, some of quite large area being situated on the higher hills. The hardness of the rocks and the slight degree by which they are held in solution, renders the water flowing over them remarkably pure and of excellence for drinking purposes. I much doubt if water from any part of the globe makes better tea. [C:14]

Vegetation covers the greater part of the lowlands and consists principally of annuals of many species. The arboreal or truly woody character of plant life is meager indeed, confined to a few species of Salix, rarely attaining a diameter of stem exceeding two or three inches and so distorted in growth that it is not possible to find a piece two feet in straight length. The alders, Alnus, seldom surpass the willows in size and these possess the same distorted character as those mentioned. Vaccinium, Rubus and Empetrum are the principal growths of bushes and these flourish on all favorable spots; the latter covering many acres in a single patch of vivid green and luxuriant growth. [77-78]

The greater portion of the vegetation of the Aleutian islands is below five-hundred feet from sea-level. Between 500 and 800 feet elevation the decrease is marked and at 1000 feet only the hardiest species grow. At 1200 to 1500 feet only the lichens and mosses with occasionally a flowering plant may be found. Above 1500 feet only the scantiest lichens cling tenaciously to the wind swept rocks.... But few spots are so favorably situated and contain enough fertile soil as to produce the hardier character of vegetables such as potatoes, radishes, turnips, lettuce and spinach. Turnips alone thrive well and the inability to procure a change of potatoes for seed causes those often replanted to deteriorate and become not only small but watery. [79, 81-82]

Luxuriant patches of grass, whose growth has excited the wonder and words of all who have seen them, flourish in favorable situations, but as these areas are quite restricted and the amount of rain falling at the time when such grasses are fit to be cut prevents the rearing of cattle and sheep on the islands to a greater extent than to supply an occasional beef and a limited flow of milk from the cows kept only by the trading company and the resident priest at Unalashka alone; even there necessitating hay and other food to be brought from San Francisco to sustain the starving creatures housed for fully six months in the year. The grasses are sufficiently nutritious to fatten the beef animals brought up in the spring and turned loose until the fall or when the weather of winter sets in for earnest. [82]

From the evidence before us we must conclude that no great change has occurred on the entire chain of islands, probably far less than has happened in the middle latitudes of the United States for there the treeless areas have been encroached upon until now the tree producing area is fully twice as great as it was in the beginning of the eighteenth century. Nothing can occur to effect a change in the primitive aspect of the Aleutian Islands. [83]

While there is little probability that the climate of this region has changed within the past five hundred years to any perceptible degree[,] the present atmospheric conditions may be taken as a general index of the past. The thermometer seldom ranges to zero on the eastern islands; very rarely below five degrees at Unalashka and slightly above that for the western islands where a minimum of eight degrees has not been recorded. The summer heat seldom going above seventy-eight degrees and then only for a few hours at a time; so that a mean temperature for the islands is not far from forty degrees. [79-80]

The preponderance of cloudy weather caused by the innumerable currents swashing through the passes, the warmer water from the Pacific commingling with the cold water of Bering Sea[,] causes the air to be filled with vapors surcharged and liable to precipitate at an elevation of only a few hundred feet. The proportion of cloudy weather is about eight-tenths and fair weather only fifteen-hundredths while clear days are rare indeed. The condensation of vapor or its dissipation frequently takes place from eight to ten in the evening so that the nights are more often clear than the days. The amount of precipitation varies on the different islands. The annual rainfall at Unalashka exceeds one-hundred feet [sic] while that at Attu is certainly not greater than fifty-five feet [sic] annually. [80-81]

The Near Islands

* The localities here included embrace the islands of Attoo, Agattoo, and Semechi.... Semechi is the smallest of the three, and lies about twenty-three miles to the southeast of Attoo. It is quite low on the southern side, where are found innumerable ponds and lakes, some of the latter being of considerable area. The low-grounds are covered with vegetation of various kinds, and the shallower ponds, in some instances, yield vegetable food in abundance for the great numbers of Ducks and Geese which breed there. On the northern side of the island the shore is precipitous, rising at several localities several hundred feet, and abounds in niches, ledges, and crevices where breed vast numbers of Puffins, Auks, Murres, and Guillemots, which find an abundance of food in the neighboring sea. [N:154-155]

* Agattoo Island forms the southwest portion of the group, and is of considerable size, being but slightly less than Attoo, and much larger than Semechi. The shores of this island are more elevated and abrupt, having many indentations, at the head of which small streams issue from the larger lakes. The general character of the surface is undulating, though much broken, being everywhere intersected by a network of ravines and valleys, separating hills and mountains, some of which latter are over 1600 feet in height. These valleys and the lower grounds contain many lakes, in which is found an abundance of fresh-water vegetation. High grasses and other plants crown the cliffs and occupy the tops of rocks, affording suitable nesting places for various Auks and Puffins. Thousands of Geese are also hatched here. Here too the Snowy Owl and two species of Hawks breed, the young of the water birds affording them abundant food. The only mammals occurring on either Semechi or Agattoo are marine species-the sea-otter, sea-lion, some three species of hair-seals. An occasional fur-seal may also be seen in the vicinity. [N:155]

* Attoo is the largest of the group, and has an east and west extension of nearly thirty-five miles, and a breadth of nearly fourteen miles. The shore is remarkably indented, often for several miles, forming bays and coves. The shores are mostly abrupt, with but little beach excepting in certain places on portions of the northern side and eastern end of the island, where several wide-mouthed valleys gradually rise toward the hillsides, which in most instances are very steep. Attoo is much more mountainous than either of the other islands of the group. The mountains are high, rising in a few instances above 2500 feet, and are accessible only by most fatiguing ascents, the approaches to the summits being steep and difficult. The mountain range extends length-wise through the island, with several spurs of irregular height shooting off at various angles from the main range. The valleys, some of which are quite broad, are traversed by streams, two of which, issuing from large lakes, are of great size. The sides of the hills and the valleys are plentifully clothed with vegetation, and many berries are to be found. In the fall of the year these are the favorite feeding-grounds of thousands of Geese, a few of which are hatched on Semechi but the greater part on Agattoo. The Geese, feeding on the ripening berries in late August, September, and October, rapidly fatten after their moult and become so heavy that I have known them to burst their skins in falling when shot on the wing. The high bluffs afford the Cormorants a safe breeding-place; the grassy ledges near the water form convenient nesting sites for Eiders; and in the recesses of the rocks Auks and Puffins abound. Here blue foxes (Vulpes lagopus) are found in numbers. The natives have very wisely restricted the foxes to this large island, otherwise they would not be able to procure the birds-Puffins and Guillemots-from whose skins they make a long garment for protection against the cold of winter.... [N:155-156]

*These islands possess a warmer climate than the eastern portions of the Aleutian Chain, the winter temperature never falling as low as zero. The lowest degree of cold recorded by me was 10.5? F., and this in the coldest season the natives could remember. The summer is often bright and warm; the maximum temperature reaching 76? F. Much cloudy weather occurs at times, but it is generally fair from July to October. Rain falls every month in the year, although March is known as the snow month. [See Chapter 17.] Fogs often continue for several days at a time, but seldom overhang the land; Semechi and Agattoo, however, are more foggy than Attoo. Rain often falls heavily, but only for brief intervals. Storms are often excessively severe, and during the winter are of frequent occurrence, the winds from the southwest and southeast being often very violent, causing a terrible sea to dash against the shores. [N:156]

Chapter Two

Settlements in 1878

At the present time the distribution of the Aleut is confined alone to the following villages and nowhere else are they to be found. Unfortunately the loose application of the term Aleut, as applied by the Russians[,] has been employed in an abused manner by several American writers, who have had little opportunity to confirm their assertions. [216-217]

The westernmost people are those who dwell exclusively on the island of Attu and have no permanent settlement on any other island of the group. [217]

The next are the Atkhan Aleut who have a single village on the island of Atkha and no other outside, permanent village. [217]

The third are the Umnak Aleut who dwell on the island of that name. [217]

The fourth are the Unalashkans who dwell on that island and Borka [Sedanka Island] to the eastward but two miles. [217]

The fifth are the Akutan Aleut who dwell on the island of that name. The sixth are the Akun Aleut who dwell on the island of that name and are so intimately connected with the Akutan people that they may be considered as one people. [218]

The seventh are the Morzhovie Aleut dwelling on the western extremity of Aliaska and inside of Isanotsky (or "False") Pass. [218]

The eighth are the aggregations of Aleut dwelling on Sannakh Island. These are brought from all parts of the Aleut population and have here but few permanent dwellings being for the most part temporarily inhabited by sea-otter hunting parties. [218]

The next (or ninth) are those of Belkovsky dwelling on the mainland of the Peninsula of Aliaska. [218]

The tenth are the Aleut of Unga and Korovin Islands, mainly peopled from the Belkovsky Aleut and also include the Aleut of Protasof [Morzhovoi] settlement and Vosnessensky Island. The Belkovsky Aleut as here included with the Unga Aleut are the most eastern of those people and [who] have an east and west extension of nearly 1300 miles. [219]


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments xi

A Note on the Term Aleut xiii

Introduction: Late-Nineteenth-Century Aleutian Ethnography Lucien M. Turner 1

A Note on the Text 47

1 General Description of the Aleutian Islands 51

The Near Islands 55

2 Settlements in 1878 57

3 Houses 61

Stone Lamps 62

4 Boats 65

5 Clothing 69

Gut Sewing 70

Footwear 72

Preparation of Bird Skins 73

6 Weaving 77

7 Fire Making 83

8 Hunting-General Considerations 87

Hunting Implements 89

9 Mammals 103

Whales 103

Tools Related to Whaling 105

Sea Cows 106

10 Birds 109

Bolas 110

Notes on Specific Birds 112

11 Fish, Sea Urchins, and Cephalopods 133

Fishing Implements 133

Notes on Specific Fish 133

Sea Urchins 152

Cephalopods 154

12 Plants 157

Trees 157

Plants and Berries 160

13 Origins: Evidence from Language and Folklore 169

14 Governance 177

15 Internecine Wars and Slavery 179

16 Social Relationships 185

17 The Yearly Cycle 189

Seasons 189

Months 190

18 Assorted Beliefs and Traditions 193

19 Miscellaneous Remarks 197

Appendix 1 Three Charts of the Near Islands 201

Appendix 2 Gut Bags-A Preliminary Survey 211

Notes 219

Bibliography 229

Index 235

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