History of the Islands

St. Paul and St. George are small, mainly Aleut (Unangan) villages, with an unusual history.

Russian Contact

St. Paul and St. George are small, mainly Aleut (Unangan) villages, with an unusual history. The islands, while known to the Aleut people, were not home to permanent settlements at the time of Russian contact in the 18th century (Black 2004; Torrey 1978). Instead, Russian fur seal traders, upon discovering that the islands hosted fur seal breeding grounds, began to seasonally relocate Aleut hunters from their villages in the Aleutian Islands, bringing them to the Pribilof Islands and forcing them to harvest fur seals (Torrey 1978). Year-round settlements in the islands eventually developed in the early 1800s (Corbett and Swibold 2000). Conditions in the Pribilofs improved from that point on, as residents became Russian citizens, received compensation for their labor, and were allowed to develop their own, traditional, forms of governance (Corbett and Swibold 2000), though traditional forms of religion were largely supplanted by involvement in the Russian Orthodox Church (Jones 1980).

Sale to the U.S.A.

In 1867, however, Alaska was sold to the United States and Pribilof residents became wards of the federal government (Jones 1980). During this period, conditions in the Pribilof Islands steadily worsened, as first private corporations and then federal agents attempted to maximize seal harvest profits. Government agents implemented strict policies including: obligatory labor, federal control over local politics, a ban on sugar (which was frequently used to make alcohol), condoning of exile as a punishment, and, finally, a policy of isolation and secrecy designed to prevent outsiders from discovering the cruel conditions shaping local life (Jones 1980).

These policies, as well as the issuing of supplies rather than wages, gave government agents a great deal of control over local people, control that the government was loathe to give up. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act declared all Natives in the country to be citizens of the United States; government agents in the Pribilof Islands ignored the implications of this act, maintaining that Pribilof Aleuts were wards of the state (Jones 1980).

World War II

World War II finally changed the relationship between Pribilof residents and the United States government. Fearing Japanese attack on the islands, government officials evacuated residents to an abandoned cannery in Funter Bay, near Juneau, Alaska (Torrey 1978). Conditions in the camp were dismal, but the remote location allowed federal agents to maintain control over the population and prevent Pribilof Island Aleuts from discovering what life was like in other Alaskan towns, where residents had citizenship rights and earned wages for their work (Jones 1980). Eventually, a few Pribilof Islanders were allowed to move to Juneau, working in a variety of jobs and capacities (Torrey 1978). These experiences fueled a desire to fight for political rights and economic sufficiency. After the war, residents were returned to the islands and initiated a series of campaigns to fight for their rights. The late 1940s saw the creation of a local Alaska Native Brotherhood chapter in the islands, initiation of litigation against the federal government, and the first of several work strikes (Torrey 1978). In 1950, the federal government finally applied the Indian Reorganization Act to the Pribilof Islands, allowing them to start tribal councils (Torrey 1978). The political environment changed significantly toward the end of the decade, with Alaska gaining statehood.


Statehood granted Alaska the right to 70% of the earnings from Pribilof Island sealing operations, making oversight of the islands financially draining to the federal government (Jones 1980). This, combined with the successful local campaign to gain economic parity with other federal employees (Torrey 1978), inspired the federal government to even greater cost cutting measures. In the 1960s, therefore, the federal government attempted to consolidate the two Pribilof Island communities, by moving residents from St. George to St. Paul (Torrey 1978). This proved to be wildly unpopular with local residents, and although several families (approximately 60 people) did move to St. Paul, the majority of St. George residents refused to move (Torrey 1978). In response, the federal government announced its intention to withdraw from the islands.

Village Corporations

In 1971 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) passed, granting land ownership of the islands to two newly created village corporations: TDX in St. Paul and Tanaq in St. George (Torrey 1978). Subsurface rights in both islands were awarded to a third newly created regional corporation, the Aleut Corporation (Jones 1980). Two years later, the federal government closed down sealing operations on St. George. For the next 10 years, St. George was used as a research base for researchers studying the decline of the local fur seal population (Jones 1980). During this period, the federal government continued to support the community, while harvesting continued in St. Paul.

Government Withdrawal

Then, in 1985, the government officially withdrew from the islands (Corbett and Swibold 2000). Initially, the ANCSA corporations substantially strengthened the political power of both Pribilof Island communities. After decades of fighting against government control, residents were highly organized, motivated, and legally savvy. Furthermore, years of government restrictions on immigration and emigration in the islands meant that at the time ANCSA passed, the Pribilof Island population was very much concentrated in the islands, as opposed to many other villages across the state, which had already experienced a great deal of outmigration. ANCSA therefore provided residents funds and a corporate structure to help get their message across. The corporations, however, proved not to be the sources of economic development locals hoped for. The threat of taxation and the need to post consistent profits made low-return investments risky and, as such, both corporations made only limited investments on the islands (Jones 1980). Instead, residents won funds for their fledgling economies through litigation. In protest of their treatment during World War II, residents sued the federal government and won approximately $8.5 million in settlement money (State of Alaska 2011). Their burgeoning self-reliant economy was dealt a strong blow in 1985, however, when declines in fur seal populations, combined with the anti-sealing agenda of environmental organizations like Greenpeace, created enough political will to close the fur seal fishery.

Fur Seal Fishery Closes

Pribilof Island residents responded by demanding government support to transition their local economy from a sealing base to a fisheries base. The outcome of the political struggle was two-fold: the federal government promised to provide $20 million dollars to fund the development of fisheries-related infrastructure on both islands and also allocated fishing quota to St. Paul and St. George through the Community Development Quota (CDQ) program (Ginter 1995; State of Alaska 2011).

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