Indian Country Today
Update: On June 8, Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed legislation that expands the Funter Bay marine park to protect a WWII-era Unangax internment camp cemetery.
The Alaska Legislature unanimously voted on Monday to help protect an Unangax, or Aleut, cemetery in Southeast Alaska. The cemetery holds the remains of Aleut people who died in a World War II era internment camp.
“The main thing about this bill is that as a country, as a state, as a people, we are still capable of these atrocities. And unless we remember the history, we're at risk of repeating it again,” testified Martin Stepetin, Aleut, at a Senate Resources Committee hearing on May 12.
The cemetery needs protection, Stepetin said. It’s being taken over by the dense rain forest surrounding it. People who stumble across its Russian Orthodox Church style crosses find no information about the cemetery or its significance.
Stepetin’s father was born at one of the two camps at Funter Bay and was one of the few babies who survived the internment, which extended from 1942 to 1945.
At the committee hearing, bill sponsor Rep. Sara Hannan, a Democrat from Juneau, said House Bill 10 would add 251 acres of state-owned land in Funter Bay to an existing state marine park. “The purpose of it is to protect the cemetery that exists from a World War II relocation camp,” Hannah said.
Niko Sanguinetti is curator of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, which has created an exhibit about the internment. She is also secretary of the Funter Bay Working Group, which is made up of representatives of nearly every organization from the Pribilof and Aleutian islands — non-profit, for-profit, tribal, historical, governmental — and interested individuals. They’ve been working for years to build recognition and awareness of this piece of history.
The Pribilof Islands and the chain of Aleutian Islands to their south are strategically located between North America and Asia. In the Aleutians, the Japanese bombed one town and occupied two islands during World War II, a history that is often forgotten or overlooked.
Sanguinetti said early in the war the U.S. military discussed but didn’t take steps to relocate civilians from the Pribilof and Aleutian islands for safety. Then in June 1942 Japanese forces bombed Dutch Harbor and occupied the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. Captured Indigenous civilians were transported to Japan as prisoners of war.
Within a few weeks, various branches of the U.S. military swept in to evacuate the remaining Aleuts.
Sanguietti said the relocation “ostensibly” was for the Aleuts’ protection. “However, the civilian population...who were not Alaska Natives were not forced to leave.”
The Natives, Sanguinetti said, “were forcibly removed. And they were really only given in some cases one day or a couple of hours notice that they were leaving. They were only allowed to bring one bag or suitcase per person. And they were told to leave fishing gear, hunting gear, anything like that.”
“They didn't know how long they were going to be gone for. They didn't know where they were going,” Sanguinetti said. The military set fire to homes in the village of Atka. Others were to return years later to find their homes ransacked.
The 881 were moved to Southeast Alaska. About 360 were shipped 1,300 miles to Funter Bay, and left at abandoned cannery and mining facilities. Some were housed in tents. People were still living in uninsulated buildings meant only for seasonal summer jobs when winter temperatures fell to 10 degrees. Some lacked stoves. Pipes froze.
Funter Bay camps would turn out to be among the deadliest of the Aleut camps, with a mortality rate of more than 10 percent. The elderly and very young died by the dozens.
Stepetin said, “Tuberculosis and other diseases were rampant throughout the camps. There was obvious malnutrition and just a lack of care, no running water, no heat.”
“So it was just a terrible, terrible time for the Aleuts of St. Paul and St. George,” he told Indian Country Today.
In the early 1800s Russians had relocated Aleuts to the Pribilof Islands to harvest fur seals for their valuable pelts. The U.S. government kept that going and paid Aleuts to keep revenues flowing into the U.S. Treasury from the lucrative harvest. The federal government took Aleut men from internment camps back to the Pribilofs for the seasonal fur seal harvest.
Sen. Peter Micciche, a Republican from Soldotna, said when the bill was introduced last year, “we investigated the potential value of minerals on site. The Alaska Miners' Association has now provided a letter that says there is no documented mineral occurrences on the land in question.” Witnesses testified hunting and recreational access would not be impacted.
Resources Committee Chairman Sen. Joshua Revak, a Republican from Anchorage, said he had attended the commemoration of the Japanese bombing of Dutch Harbor in Unalaska. The event included World War II veterans, a Japanese film crew, and evacuees. “And I will tell you that it was one of the most amazing experiences of healing that I have ever encountered,” Revak said.
He said having learned from that experience, “I think that the cemetery is especially important to remember these things, but also to make it be about a time of healing and a place of healing as well for those that have ancestors and have been involved in any way.”
The Senate Resources Committee voted the bill out of committee. It went to the full Legislature and was unanimously approved May 17. It is being transmitted to the governor for signature.