T he term "Aleut" originally was a self-designation of the inhabitants of the Near Islands, the westernmost Unangan group, distinct from other Aleuts culturally and linguistically. Today it has become the self-designation of several Alaskan peoples, including the Unangan (who speak the Aleut language) and Alutiiq speaking Kodiak Islanders.
As the decade of the 1990's opened, the Alutiiq people of south-central Alaska were singing and performing traditional dances, carving ceremonial masks, making traditional clothing, building kayaks, and taking action to preserve their language. Only a decade before, many thought that these symbols of Alutiiq culture had perhaps vanished forever. Then the Kodiak Area Native Association (KANA), the regional tribal organization of the Alutiiq of Kodiak Island, began efforts to preserve and revitalize traditional culture.
This movement spread to the Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound and the Kenai and Alaska peninsulas. Associated with this effort has been a "sobriety movement" that addresses the issue of alcohol abuse at a grassroots level, as well as new efforts of taking control of political power and resource management. Several Alutiiq communities have implemented mariculture and salmon hatchery programs to develop an economic base. The Kodiak Island village of Larsen Bay secured the repatriation of nearly 800 human skeletons excavated in the village in the 1930's and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution. An elaborate reburial ceremony took place in 1991. Now Prince William Sound Alutiiq communities are in the process of repatriating human remains taken from that area.
Today Alutiiq communities are experiencing a significant resurgence of pride in their heritage and ethnic identity.
There is no such thing as an Aleut. We call ourselves Unangan, or Unangas in the Atkan dialect. In our region the work of individuals is valued, but cooperative efforts are of infinitely loftier value. In the oral tradition, stories and narratives were passed down from one generation to the next, but sometime after contact the stories ceased to told in public places, then ceased, in most cases, to be told at all.
Much ethnographic information can be extracted from the surviving stories and narratives of the Unangan. The cooperative marriage of indigenous information with modern technology can help retrieve valuable information for the benefit of all. But the survival of the Unangam way of life is paramount to this venture. If information survives without the people, then the world will have lost a crucial ingredient in the recipe for the survival of mankind and the management of renewable resources.
Our Unangam identities have become so tenuous that we are excavating, sifting, and meticulously labeling the artifacts of our society with increasing fervor. If we do not, something may disappear forever. The endangered Unangam language is a virtually untapped resource of clues about our history, found objects, our profound relationship with land and sea, rules to live by, and perhaps most importantly, a unique view of the world. The Unangam folklore is a vital part of our contribution to the world bank of knowledge.