Seventy-five years ago, the U.S. government sent 885 Alaska Natives from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands to internment camps in Southeast Alaska. Left to virtually fend for themselves, seventy-four did not survive.
Retracing the path from the far reaches of Western to Southeast Alaska isn’t an easy task, but on May 20, survivors of the internment, their family and friends made the trip to Funter Bay. Four hundred and sixty Alaska Natives from St. Paul and St. George Islands called this their home for two years.
The group came to heal from old wounds, commemorate those lost and to connect with their pasts.
Agafon Krukoff Jr. was one of those people. He had been to Funter Bay before, but he wouldn’t remember it. He was baby in his mother Haretina Krukoff’s womb during her internment.
Born a month after Haretina returned to St. Paul, the trip to Funter Bay brought Krukoff Jr. mixed feelings.
As a child, he had heard St. Paul elders talk of the internment over coffee, and was glad to finally be able to picture the setting of their stories. But while he was glad to learn more about his parents’ past, he felt frustrated about the decision-making processes that led to the internment.
“My grandpa always told me … ‘You come from Funter Bay. You come from a strawberry patch in Funter Bay.’ I said, ‘strawberry patch, what’s a strawberry patch?’ Pribilof Islands, we don’t have any strawberry patches,” Krukoff Jr. said. “All those years you listen to Funter Bay stories, so it’s a mystery story to me. … You don’t appreciate what you learn until you get out there. A trip like this answers a lot of questions.”
Funter Bay had helped create Krukoff Jr. but for many interred there, Funter Bay was their undoing. Left to fend for themselves thousands of miles from home, the Aleuts and Pribilof Islanders didn’t have access to clean water, sanitation facilities or proper heating.
The refugees were given only substandard bunk housing at a shuttered cannery on the North side of the bay. There was little food, and without medical or sanitation facilities, many succumbed to disease.
Sitting on the beach at Funter Bay, Carl Merculief Sr. experienced the same sights and sounds his mother and grandmother did. He would see Funter Bay for only a few hours, but as a heavy rain poured on the beach, he imagined the hardship his family had to endure so far away from home.
“My mom was 10 years old when her mom passed away down here. She ended up taking care of the rest of her brothers and sisters at the age of 10,” Merculief Sr. said. “A lot of bad memories.”
Drafted into the Army in 1966, Merculief Sr. said he doesn’t hold any grudges against the military or the U.S. Navy, who ordered the evacuation.
Born four years after his parents returned to St. George, he said he had a happy childhood, even though the community was still rebuilding.
“When they got home, my parents, the military had destroyed all the homes and shot all the icons in their houses,” Merculief Sr. said.
Part of the reason for the the 75th-anniversary trip was to install a new “healing cross” at the grave site near the St. Paul camp.
A camp survivor’s logbook from 1943 chronicled a deadly flu epidemic that some of the Aleutians wouldn’t survive. On Christmas Eve of that year, three men at the St. George camp, located at an old mine camp across the bay from the St. Paul camp, were sick.
By the 27th, 10 at St. George and most of the workmen in the St. Paul camp were sick. By New Year’s Eve, “it seemed that only one man from each camp was well enough to work at the sad task of building caskets.”
The St. Paul grave site had been rebuilt in the early 2000s, the old crosses laid down on the tops of graves and new ones installed in their place. About 23 graves lie next to a brook in the graveyard, behind a beachfront cabin.
After having read about the Aleut internment in a Capital City Weekly story, inmates at Lemon Creek Correctional Center built a “healing cross” to mark the graveyard.
Once carried into the woods by a group of volunteers, the Right Reverend David, Bishop of Sitka and Alaska for the Orthodox Church, blessed the cross and the gravesites. (The Bishop’s last name is Mahaffey, but bishops are monastic, and as such, he’s given up his last name.)
The church has been an important figure in Aleutian and Pribilof Island history. David estimates that a majority of his congregation is Alaska Native from the area.
Of the three Orthodox Churches standing in the Aleutians during WWII, “one of the churches was used for target practice by the Navy, one was a quartermaster’s corps and they stored supplies in it and one was a dancehall, so they didn’t respect the churches at all,” David said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was tasked with taking care of the Aleutians and Pribilof Islanders after the Navy ordered the evacuation in 1942.
Though it’s still not entirely clear why the USFWS was unable to adequately provide for the Aleuts, the agency is now taking responsibility for its failures.
Karen Clark, a deputy director with the USFWS, apologized on behalf of the agency for their role in the internment. The agency is waiting for the exact anniversary of the internment for their director to offer an official letter of apology.
“Our agency’s role in this painful event in the history of the Aleut peoples is also a sad part of our history,” Clark said, addressing the boat as they left Funter Bay. “Some fish and wildlife service agents were concerned and cared about the people and conditions and tried to affect changes in the camp, yet others were unsympathetic. … As much as we wish, we cannot take back the course of history. But what we can do now is heal together.”
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2228.