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Aleuts Remember

Alaska Natives recount their internment during World War II

Posted: Sunday, December 04, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Mary Bourdukofsky was at home after church on rugged St. Paul Island one Sunday in the summer of 1942, when her agitated husband rushed breathless through the door from his weekly baseball game.

The game had been canceled without warning, he told her. The federal government was forcing them to leave their home on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea for a wartime internment camp in Southeast Alaska, 1,500 miles away.

"He came running in and said, 'They've stopped the ballgame. They've come to evacuate us people,"' Bourdukofsky said.

A new documentary film, "Aleut Story," includes this testimony from Bourdukofsky and other Aleuts in chronicling the little-known internment of 881 Alaska Natives from the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands during World War II.

Many in the film are speaking publicly for the first time about their experiences in the camps, where they were sent after troops from Japan invaded Alaska's western outposts in June 1942.

"My mother, when she was living, she used to start crying, so we wouldn't talk about it," Bourdukofsky told The Associated Press. Bourdukofsky, now 82, was a young mother of two during the evacuation.

Many Aleuts were thankful to be ferried out of the war zone, until they arrived at five overcrowded, disease-infested sites scattered throughout damp spruce rainforests.

"There was a lot of sickness at the camp," said retired Maj. Gen. Jake Lestenkof, who was 11 years old when his mother died of pneumonia at a camp at Funter Bay.

"There was a lot of pneumonia and tuberculosis that was going around and not treated. There were certainly no medical facilities or personnel," Lestenkof, 73, told the AP.

One in ten people died in the camps from 1942 to 1945, according to federal estimates cited in the film.

Sanitation and pipe systems were never installed. Residents drank water tainted with sewage and - at one camp - runoff from the expanding cemetery.

Sites included an abandoned fish cannery and a rotting gold mining camp.

"It was terrible," said Maria Turnpaugh, 78, from her home in Unalaska. "We lived in little shacks full of holes, and no running water. People got sick all the time."

Aleuts weren't suspected of spying or sabotage, as were tens of thousands of Japanese Americans corralled into federal internment camps after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

"I looked hard for evidence that there had been any suggestion at any time" of Aleut spies, said Marla Williams, who wrote, directed and produced the film. "There was no question of their loyalty whatsoever."

The film includes letters from officials who thought internment would protect Aleuts from the fighting in Alaska's distant western islands.

Still, Aleuts weren't allowed to leave the camps without penalty unless they had been drafted into the military, or threatened into working the Pribilof fur seal hunt, which brought millions in income to the U.S. government.

"No one knew what to do with the Aleuts. They wanted to keep them under control of government agents," said Dorothy Jones, who researched the Aleut case for the Justice Department during lawsuits in the late 1970s.

The government particularly wanted to keep the Pribilof Aleuts under control because they were highly skilled in harvesting fur seal, said Jones, who later wrote a book based on her Justice Department research called "A Century of Servitude: Pribilof Aleuts Under U.S. Rule."

Aleut families returned to the Aleutians and Pribilofs in 1944 and 1945 to find their homes and Russian Orthodox churches looted by U.S. soldiers and rotting from years of neglect in the wind, rain and salt air.

"My grandmother's house, she had a lot of old things up in her attic, lots of Russian antiques," said Turnpaugh of her family's return to Unalaska. "There was nothing left."

Turnpaugh said her father, a member of the Coast Guard and the American Legion, raised her to be "very patriotic." But she didn't know what to think after the internment and looting.

"It was like we were villains, like we didn't belong anywhere," Turnpaugh said.

Aleuts joined Japanese Americans in the 1950s through 1980s in lawsuits seeking federal restitution for loss of property and civil liberties during internment.

A decision by the Indian Claims Commission in 1978 gave Aleuts the right to compensation from the U.S. government for coerced labor in sealing operations.

In 1987, Congress passed legislation granting reparations of $12,000 each to interned individuals who were still living, $1.4 million for damaged homes and churches, a $5 million trust for evacuees and descendants and $15 million to the Aleut Native corporation.

It was restitution money that partially funded "Aleut Story," which received a "Best Documentary" nomination this year at the American Indian Film Festival. The film is airing on public television stations across the country and will be shown Sunday at the Anchorage International Film Festival.

"Aleut Story" began as a short documentary on the restoration of Aleutian and Pribilof churches damaged during World War II.

"Once we contracted with (film production company) Sprockethead, the scope of the story got expanded," said Lestenkof, who has served as Alaska's Adjutant General and commissioner of the state's Department of Military and Veterans' Affairs. "It's a crucial part of Alaskan history."

He said he and many other Aleuts feel no bitterness against the government for its poor management of the camps.

"The Interior Department and territorial government were derelict, but I never blamed the government as a whole," he said.

Many internment survivors have watched the film in sold-out Anchorage screenings or at home with younger family members.

Turnpaugh watched the statewide public television broadcast of "Aleut Story" by herself at the Senior Center in Unalaska, about halfway down the Aleutian chain.

"I watched it alone and I'm glad I watched it alone," Turnpaugh said. "I cried. To me, it was letting it all out."



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