Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Letter From Alaska: Aleuts and the Sea Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005
by Herbert Maschner and Katherine Reedy-Maschner

Archaeology on the Alaska Peninsula is helping indigenous fishermen maintain ancient traditions.


On an early June evening in the Aleut community of King Cove, Alaska, pickups race between houses and the harbor where men are finishing their diesel repairs, checking their electronics, and mending nets. Wives, mothers, and girlfriends deliver food, supplies, and essentials needed for many days on the open ocean. The boat crews listen as elderly men tell tales of harrowing storms, engine fires, and friends lost overboard. Then, almost as if on signal, King Cove harbor begins to empty. The southern horizon fills with setnetters, drift gillnetters, and seiners heading into the dangerous waters of the North Pacific, their sodium lights blazing as the midnight sun sets far to the north. For the next three weeks, these boats will harvest hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon, a fish that is the life blood and foundation of modern eastern Aleut culture.

Much like their ancestors, the Aleut of the Alaska Peninsula today survive on their ability to harvest foods from the sea. The salmon, cod, crab, halibut, and other foods that are distributed to community elders come from the nets, pots, and lines of the commercial fishermen. Traditions that began millennia ago are played out everyday with modern boats and equipment. But because of changes in the global economy, especially the growth in cheap, farmed salmon, and the politics of environmental conservation, like restrictions on fishing to protect endangered species such as the Steller sea lion, these traditions are threatened, and the future of the Aleut as an independent culture is now in question. As part of an effort to preserve their way of life, the Aleut are turning to archaeology and anthropology to recapture their historical identity; which they now know has a long and spectacular presence in the archaeological record, one that is telling us much about the ancient Aleut, and much about their modern relationship with the sea.

Herbert Maschner is an associate professor of anthropology at Idaho State University. Katherine Reedy-Maschner is a member of the research faculty in anthropology at Idaho State University. Their research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Special thanks to the people of King Cove, Sand Point, Nelson Lagoon, and False Pass, Alaska.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America