by Jessica Miller
July 31, 2007
In the early 80s, crews were often given pages and pages of printed matter to read regarding campaigns. There must have been a stack six inches high when we went out to the Marshall Islands in 1985. Two years before, when we were here in Alaska, we also had a large stack to read. It was then I read about the treatment of the Aleuts during WWII.It began when Japanese forces captured Kiska and Attu. The Navy weather observers from Kiska and the Aleuts from Attu were captured, taken prisoner and shipped to Japan. While many Alaskan officials realized the dangers of uprooting the Aleuts from their homes, no one came up with a firm plan. The Army was certainly worried about defending the country.
When a Japanese plane was spotted over Atka on June 12th (1942), Army officials hit the panic button. Giving a preoccupied Army a job it had not trained or planned for was a recipe for disaster. On Atka, villagers were told to go to their summer fishing camp. When they returned that evening, it was to find their whole village and all the posetions in flames. The military, using a scorched earth policy had burned the village so that the Japanese could not use the houses. Some families boarded the Army transport ship, some ran into the hills. Eventually, all were brought to Dutch Harbor.
On the trip to South East Alaska, the Aleuts were treated like slaves, so tightly were they packed into the ships hold. So bad were the conditions that the government doctor refused to go in. Life would be no better in the internment camps. The camps were abandoned fishing camps and coalmines. Food was scarce, and domestic supplies, like soap, brooms, mops etc were non-existent. There were no sanitary facilities, and clean water was impossible to come by. There were no boats or fishing or hunting gear. But imagine forcefully removing people who had lived one place for thousands of years without trees, and putting them in a place dense with them. When the grumbling began, the government decided to send enough men back to harvest seals. Threaten with not being allowed to return if they waited until the end of the war, the men returned, being told they would be supporting the war effort and clothing the troops. In fact, they were working as slaves for the Fouke Fur Company, who kept profits of their labors. It seems that in traditional fashion, when the government made a mistake, it compounded it.
The rest of the Aleuts returned two years after the war, a year after they were promised passage. In Nikolski, they returned to find that there church cupola had been used for target practice, and the building ruined from vandalism from the American soldiers. The Atkans returned to nothing, their village having been burnt to the ground in front of their eyes. The looting in Akutan was so bad that inquiries were conducted.
Ten percent of the Aleuts died during the interment. When they returned, President Roosevelt limited award settlements to no more than $12.00 per person. So being rather shocked and amazed by this, when we got down to Dutch Harbor I called my friend Martha Davis, the wildlife campaigner from the San Francisco office. On the heels of what was a wildly successful whaling action in Siberia, we were given permission to go to the Pribilofs. The Pribiof Islands seal hunt was the last seal hunt in the U.S. My hazy speculation is that the end of the seal hunt was in the near future. If the Aleuts wondered what their fellow citizens were going to do to them next, who could blame them? Our intention is going was to see if we could offer any help in establishing other means of support for the community.
The best plans of mice and men? ..
One afternoon while Martha and the other campaigners were at a meeting, I received a radio call. I had just spent some time on the rowing machine in the hold, and had taken my weekly shower, those being the days before water makers (or at least before we had them). It turns out one of our boat had gotten loose, and was beating itself to death on the rocks. Not thinking twice, I jumped into another boat, and raced for the beach. I could not get close enough to the rocks to get the boat myself. But whether I saw them on the dock, or just up on the hill, there were Dan and Daniel, just where and when I needed them.
Dan and Daniel had become "famous" the month before for delaying our departure for the Siberia whale campaign, when their boat flipped over in the surf after taking someone ashore in Nome. But that’s another story. Somehow I was able to get them to understand I needed them down at the beached boat ASAP to throw me line. I had not really stopped to look at the few seals on the beach. They ran down the hillside. When they were about halfway down, I could see why they had been reluctant. As they ran down through the seal heard, large bull sea lions, the size of small steam locomotives would lunge at them snarling with mouths open. I guess it said something for my powers of persuasion at that time that I got them to do it. And it really was a good show. Any NFL halfback would have been proud to move so quickly. As a bull would lunge at them, both would change directions instantly, and run away a few steps before turning to run back down the hill. They got down the hill, and threw me the painter of the beached boat that was smashing against the rocks. I heard Daniel yell, "aren’t you going to pick us up!?!" "Surf too bad" I said, "meet me at the dock". Zoom, I was off.They made it back to the dock a few minutes after I did. I was sitting in the boat sort of steaming. My weekly shower had been done in by several buckets of very cold salt water that had gone down the back of my neck. While we were sitting there calming down, a jeep drove up. An officer of some kind wanted us to "come along". He did not put us in cuffs or say we were arrested, but he was pretty pissed off. Because it turns out, while Martha and company were in their meeting, we had scattered most of the herd that was due to be culled the next day. And the people of the island were pissed. They suspected that we had planned the whole thing. And it took quite some explaining on our part to make them believe that we had just been real stupid. (Maybe that was not so hard to believe…) I remember saying that we never did actions without at least a couple shooters (video) and snappers (stills) around. But the officer took down our names to see if anyone up the line wanted to prosecute us. I apologized at the time, and I will be happy to apologize again when I visit the Pribilofs this summer. We never had any intention of screwing up their livelihood. We went there only with the intention of seeing if there was anything we could do to help. Which is why we are going back this summer. Hopefully with George leading the way, we will do a bit better this time.
Martha left Greenpeace a year later and became executive director of the Save Mono Lake Committee. Dan Zbozien designs solar houses in Boulder. Daniel Burgivan is in artist in western New York State, and has two sons.
Most of the information I used this time was from a history paper of Christopher Cueva. It can be found at: http://www.akhistorycourse.org/articles/article.php?artID=215
More info can be found at: http://www.nps.gov/archive/aleu/AleutInternmentAndRestitution.htm
– Peter Wilcox