Several thousand years ago, before European explorers discovered the shores of the Aleutian Islands, they were inhabited by the “Unangas” (Aleut people).
Rough, windy seas surround these remote, rocky, majestically beautiful, volcanic islands; inhabitants who live there experience some of the most inclement weather in the world. Despite the tempestuous surroundings, the Unangas adapted to the environment and became excellent navigators of the sea, skillfully harvesting its unlimited bounties as their main livelihood.
They were designers and craftsmen of sea vessels called “baidarkas” which are well known for excellent maneuverability over the ocean no matter what weather conditions prevailed. The one to three man vessels would travel for long periods at sea before returning to the shore; males were trained at a very early age to sit for many days with their legs straight out before them in the enclosure of the baidarka. Historically, it is recorded that if the men were appropriately outfitted with “kamleikas” (waterproof garments) in a properly constructed baidarka, they could roll completely over in the sea and become upright again without being tossed from the baidarka.
When the Russian explorers landed in 1741, it was estimated that there were as many as 20,000 Unangas spread out in hundreds of small villages throughout the sheltered harbors of the Islands. Their homes were called “barabaras” which in the very early days were semi-subterranean homes covered by earth and grass with entries through the roof. Some were built large enough to house several families; the larger dwellings were divided by attaching several small rooms to a large group room in the center.
The women were expert and artful grass weavers, this is confirmed by the preservation of ancient Aleut baskets, sleep mats, wall dividers, hand mitts and foot coverings that have been recovered and are displayed in museums, today. Some of the baskets were woven so tightly that they were able to contain water; this leads us to believe that hand mitts and grass foot coverings were woven tightly enough to repel water, keeping the hands and feet dry.
In addition to skillfully manufacturing the family clothing from materials of their surroundings, the women made waterproof garments from the intestines of sea mammal. They were called “kamleikas” and were used by men going to sea. Kamleikas were also used as ceremonial garments; these were of a special design and had colorful ornamentation made from bird feathers, soft animal furs and other dyed materials.
Today, the Aleut people have the conveniences of modern dwellings and technology, as well as many other present day amenities. They hold fast to their traditional culture and values by teaching past and present Aleut customs to their descendants so that, they too, can culturally teach and train the following generations.