American Concentration Camps: Unangax Loss and Resurrection

At times, we are made to feel ashamed of our lack of cultural knowledge. We are challenged with questions about whether we speak our language, sing songs, or offer traditional sacred prayers. It is assumed that our people have always had access to our ways, but this isn’t always the case.

Our communities have been orphaned from ancestral knowledge. Forced removal and assimilation policies affect real people living today. The federal government actively attempted to eradicate our ways of life and was, in many ways, successful.

We were reminded of this reality when we went to Alaska to visit The Cook Inlet Tribal School. We met Ethan Pettigrew, and he shared their incredible story of cultural resurrection:

“Internment had a huge impact on our villages and our families. Some villagers stopped speaking their language. Some people said ‘We can’t be Unangax anymore. There’s no history, there’s no future. We’ve got to be white, pretend we’re somebody else.’”

Ethan Petticrew (Unangax), Executive Director of Cook Inlet Native Head Start

With snow falling outside, Project 562 sat down with Ethan to learn more about the history and daily life of Unangax people. The following is a direct transcript from our conversation. Some of the language has been edited for clarity: 

Can you tell us a little about the history of the Unangax people during WWII?

“In World War II, the Japanese dropped bombs in Dutch Harbor, which was a military post on Unalaska Island. There is also a village there. Americans rounded us up and came into our villages. My mother was just a girl and my grandparents [were also imprisoned]. They came in and forced the evacuation on the village. The people had to leave all of their personal items, all of their traditional items that were being passed through our family had to be left. No family was allowed to bring anything. In some cases it was ‘pack a suitcase right now, just with clothes you can wear’, and then the people were evacuated out. We were forced to under gunpoint to do this.

[We asked] ‘Why?’ 

“The military said, ‘We’re protecting you. We’re afraid the Japanese are going to invade’.

The ship would go through each village and pick up all the people, and when they got to Unalaska Island there were mixed marriages with people married to white women and vice versa. And those families, the native spouse and the children had to go no matter what quantum they were considered. All the Aleut, they had to go. And the whites got to stay.At that point (they were not military whites, they were civilians) our leaders and chiefs were saying ‘There’s something wrong with this. Why aren’t they ‘protecting’ the white people and why are they just acting like they’re ‘protecting’ us?

I grew up hearing this pain. So forgive me if I shed a few tears when I tell this part of it. A baby died. A little baby was the first one to die. [Ethan begins to cry.] And it died down there below from Ship’s Cough. The military forced us to bury the child at sea, which is totally against our ancient tradition, spiritual beliefs, as well as Orthodox spirituality. Totally against them. We pleaded, ‘Please let us wait till we get to island or land to bury this child’. No they would not allow it. So that was the first death.”

“From there we were interned for three and a half, four years. Our people were interned in camps in Southeast Alaska in abandoned mines or abandoned fish cannery camps. 

There were a warehouse like spaces, big cracks in the floor, no insulation, nothing. They tell stories of having to put up wool blankets to cordon off their spaces. If your family was large, half the family would sleep half the night and then they’d wake them up and then the other half would sleep because it was too small for everyone to lay down at the same time. The families would spend up to three years like this.

There was no fresh food or anything like that. Our elders begged for guns, begged for boats, we’d plea, ‘Let us take care of ourselves we’ll feed ourselves.’ They wouldn’t give it to us.”

“My great-grandparents hardly ever talked about it. They’d just cry, cry, cry- there were the adults in the camps who lost their children. The people who died in the camps were the elderly. My mom, she’s no longer with us, she passed four years ago, but she told me, ‘It was like we have no future and no history. Our elders are going, it was like we had no connection with who we were. And the babies were dying and there was no future.’

It’s really impacted our Unangax people, the World War II experience. It was a horrible experience for us. We were Americans and citizens at the time did this to our people. If you look at the death certificates of the children in those camps- all it says under reason of death is, ‘pain’. So you tell me what that means.”

We asked, ”Can you talk about the concept, ‘Indian Enough?’”

“My grandmother raised us and my language was spoken in my home.  I always felt very connected to being Unangax. That’s how I felt. Even my white father said, ‘You’re Unangax.’. He supported that. The community I grew up in knew who I was and they knew my lineage. But I struggled with my identity sometimes because of my mixed blood.

I think I always felt Native, indigenous to the soul. I Love my language. I love everything about my people.  I know that I’m part white. In the Russian period, when our warfare happened, our people were raped, so we know that there’s probably Russian blood that runs through all of our veins.

What really hurt me the most, I think, is white people not seeing me. I think as native people we’re obscure to the white world. They don’t really see us. But those of us that are mixed and that can pass, we’re invisible to them. They can say some things that are horribly hurtful. If you feel indigenous in your heart and if you are indigenous and you can pass, and they say these ugly mean things, it tears at your own self-esteem.

I had one girl tell me, ‘Oh you think you’re an Indian?’, and I go, ‘What? I am Native’. She said, ‘Look outside, here’s a real Indian.’ And she points to some guy with braids walking by, and I’m like ‘Really?’. I mean those things hurt. To not be seen as an indigenous person whatsoever.

I struggled with that because I did not want to be seen as non-indigenous. So I struggled with that in a huge way.

We shouldn’t feel that shame. For mixed bloods, I think that we go through a couple of things especially when we run into native people who say, ‘You’re too white, you’ve got too much white blood.’. I’ve had that happen. And when I went back to my village after I went to college- they said, ‘Come drink with us!’, and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to drink’, and they said, ‘Oh, you think you’re white now?’ Come on, don’t put me in that situation. So where do I belong? In the white world, in my own native world? Where do I belong?”

Makary Kashatok, Unangax Dancer

“I remember being suicidal over it in my teenage years. At one point I tried pills because I thought, ‘Who am I? I don’t fit in anybody’s world. There’s too much white in me, and in the white world I have too much Native in me.’ I think that we get lost sometimes, but the ones that love us the most are our own.

We have huge suicide epidemic appear with young people. I mean it happens all the time. It’s an epidemic in our villages we have one and then five more will follow suit. And I’m sick of seeing that. I’m sick of it and it’s a product of a colonization.

I can’t stand to see any more of our young people die this way, so I’ve committed myself to working with teenagers and young people in the dance group and that’s my contribution to keeping our kids safe. I know it won’t keep them all safe and it won’t provide every single one of them with the tools they need but it’s my small contribution. To  ground them in who they are so that hopefully that will help them with resilience and moving forward. I think if more of our people could do that we’d have strong children.”

We asked, “Can you describe your work in education?”

“I love education. And so I think it’s a wonderful thing for our people. Western education is the wrong model and our people are always at the bottom of the heap. Well I think it’s designed that way to keep us ‘in our place’.
My main mission is to change education for us because I think the current model is the wrong model for us. I know it is. It’s teaching us the wrong things and it hurts us more than it helps us. And I wanted to see that change. So that’s my mission in life is to change education for our children.”
I think anybody, Native or not can indigenize a classroom. First of all if you’re in an Indigenous community, ASK. Talks to people. Connect with elders. Connect with culture bearers. Our communities are not closed places, especially for people working with our children, so ask and become part of that community.”

Elena Kosbruk, Unangax Dance Group

How do we encourage indigenous intelligence to be incorporated into western education? ”

“I think that all teachers need to be taught or sensitized on cultural relevancy and responsiveness in the classroom. I think that that goes a long ways and you know here’s a big thing- let your kids teach you.

‘Teach’ and ‘learn’ cannot be separated in our Unangax language. In our language it’s one word and it means one in the same. So we don’t see a teacher as a sage dispensing all this wonderful knowledge to these little sponges. We see teachers as facilitators to give children learning experiences. For instance take them to a fish stream and let the real learning take place. You’re facilitating it.

If you’re working with children from another culture and even some of our own people that have been westernized you need to step out of the western culture or whatever culture you come from and let the culture of those families that are in that school flourish in that school. Let it be a part of that school.” 

I love watching the growth of young people and I love our children.

Abigail Hancock, Unangax Dancer

“How did the Unangax dance group start?”

“Some years ago I wanted to revitalize Unangax traditional dance, because I just loved it and I thought I want this out there, and we’re the only group not dancing and Alaska. We put our dancing aside largely because of World War II. And so I worked with a school district in the Aleutian region and we put together a plan and a program to revitalize dance and song.

We still had elders who remembered songs and did dancing when they were young. We pulled out Russian journals that wrote a lot about our music. We had wax cylinders recorded that we had transferred on to cassette tapes. So we studied our music from long ago. An entire half a day in our schools was spent on culture - only language, dancing, traditional arts and crafts and creation of new music.

That’s how we started it. The other part of it was our traditional clothing. In World War II, we couldn’t bring anything with us to the camps and when we returned our villages the American military had ransacked the houses and everything had been taken for souvenirs including any religious items and spiritual things any traditional clothing anything - it was all gone. So we had nothing.

And what we did was we contacted a woman in Kamchatka on the other side and we commissioned her for two years to go around to the museums in Russia where our stuff is. And they let her get into the museums and unravel things. She took pictures, she did sketchings of all our traditional clothing. And we brought her back for two years and taught regalia making during school. But then we’d have two nights a week where aunties and moms and grandmas would come down and everybody was sewing and making clothing. So it was a group a community thing, it was wonderful.

The kids love it and it’s good for their soul.”

Tatiana Stepetin, Unangax Dancer

“There were signs and different things that had happened when we were revitalizing the dance. In fact we created a new song over this one. One day we were practicing dancing in our village and revitalizing it and we had strong earthquake. One of our elders was there with us he said “Don’t worry, it’s fine. It’s our ancestors. They’re right here with you. They’re shaking the earth. They’re just very proud.” We knew at that point that it was good and our elders had given us the seal of approval. So we moved and spread it to the other islands.

The first time we performed, we were so nervous and afraid. We didn’t want to do something that was not true to who we were. And none of us have ever danced for a village before.

But we did all of our dances and all the talking was done our language and at the end, the leader of the community stood up with tears in his eyes and he held his heart and said:

“This is stuff we remember from when we were children, before World War II. Seeing you dance brings so many good memories. These are tears of happiness and joy. We’re so happy to see this come back to life. The children are beautiful and this is our dance.”

Ethan dances for Project 562 at Beluga Point, Alaska

“So we started off that way since then it’s spread to every island, every village in our region now is dancing and has dance. I’m glad because I told myself I’m not dying until people are dancing again. When our people are dancing, then I can go from this earth.”