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The Last of the Aleuts

The Aleutian Islands are a sweeping, 1,900 kilometre long archipelago of volcanic islands that stretch from the Alaskan Peninsula to within 190 kilometres of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. Until America's Alaska Purchase in 1867, the island chain was part of the Russian Empire. Tasked with establishing Russian settlements in Alaska and expanding trade with Arctic natives by Tsar Paul I in 1799, the Russian-American Company employed local Aleuts to assist in trapping missions around the North Pacific. Local Aleuts were also moved from the eastern parts of the island closer to the Russian mainland to work in the maritime industry. When the Russian Revolution effectively closed the border to the United States, a Cold War barrier descended across the archipelago, leaving the Aleuts divided into eastern and western communities that were unable to visit each other. After over 70 years of separation, the two communities were once again permitted to visit each other in the early 1990s following the demise of the Soviet Union. Due to the remoteness of the islands, however, bureaucratic obstacles continued to hobble contact between the two parts of the archipelago. Even though the closest islands on the Russian and American sides of the archipelago are less than 350 kilometres apart, travel between them is extremely difficult. Russian Aleuts need to apply for a visa at the US embassy in Vladivostok, then fly to Anchorage in Alaska and from there to Atka island.

Like many remote communities in the former Soviet Union, the Aleuts of the Kommander Islands, as the Russian part of the island chain is known, now struggle to maintain their culture and sustain their outlying settlements. During Soviet times, indigenous culture was supported by the state and remote industries could survive on state grants. Today, only two community elders - Gennady Mikhailovich Yakovlev and Tymoshenko Vera Terentevna - speak the Aleut language on the Russian side. They lament the fact that young people, many of who come from mixed marriages, show little interest in Aleut culture and language.

In Nikolskoye, the only sizeable settlement on the Kommander Islands, a small museum of local history and a folklore group which performs Aleut songs and dances are the only reminders of a once vibrant culture. Valentina Sushkova, the director of the museum, worries that if nothing changes in the coming years, Aleut culture will become extinct like Steller's Sea Cow, a local creature that was hunted to extinction in the late 18th century. Yet despite the challenges to keeping Aleut culture alive, there is a small circle in the Russian community that keeps in touch with the Alaskan branch.

Every few years they organise phone conferences between Nikolskoye and communities on Atka Island. During the last conference in August 2016 around 10 people gathered at the museum in Nikolskoye and, after some technical difficulties, a connection was established with people on Atka. To their delight, the two Aleut speakers in the room were able to talk in their language and sing traditional songs for over an hour. 'This is how cultural exchange happens these days' says Yakovlev. 'In the 1990s, after the borders between our countries were opened again, we visited each other a couple of times but everything has become so complicated again.'

The people of the Kommander Islands have noticed the creeping changes caused by climate change. While thick sea ice would allow people to walk from one island to another until the 1940s, little ice now forms around the main islands. Local fishermen have reported seeing changes in the behaviour of of sea mammals, fish and birds, occasionally spotting tropical birds appearing during the summer. Scientist monitoring seals have noticed that many of young seals are underdeveloped, possibly due to the fact that warmer waters are leading females to spend more time in the water and less on land, feeding their young.

Today, the viability of the Aleut community on the Kommander Islands is seriously in doubt. The population of Nikolskoye has halved in size since 1989 and smaller settlements on nearby islands have been abandoned. While the Alaskan Aleuts still number in the thousands, Russian Aleuts are now less than five hundred, clinging on to a precarious existence on the distant periphery of the Russian Federation. Vlad Sokhin visited the Kommander Islands as part of his ongoing work on the effects of climate change and migration in the Pacific region.
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