Film has Aleuts talking through the pain
- Film has Aleuts talking through the pain
Long-silent Aleuts revisit the suffering of World War II camps in new
Anchorage Daily News
Published: November 13, 2005
Flore Lekanof was a teenager in June 1942 when the Japanese attacked Dutch
Harbor to try to divert American forces from the naval battle at Midway. He'd
just come from church when the news started to spread throughout his village of
St. George. Then came chaos and confusion.
He and other Aleuts in the Pribilof and Aleutian islands had little time to
prepare for evacuation, to assemble one bag apiece before boarding a troop ship
and sailing away from the only life they'd ever known. He didn't know how
long they'd be gone or even where they were going. He certainly didn't know his
sister and grandmother would die there.
Harriet Hope was 5 when Unalaska got its orders to go. She remembers being
dressed in her Sunday-school coat and gloves and her mother holding her up at
the rail of the ship taking them all away. She remembers watching her house get
smaller and smaller and her father, a white postmaster left behind to help
with the war effort, jumping up and down, waving his arms over his head to say
It would be 3 1/2 years before she'd see home again. And it would never be
HURTFUL AND HUMILIATING
Hope and Lekanof were among the 881 Aleuts sent by the federal government to
internment camps during World War II. With their homes suddenly in a war zone,
the evacuation was meant to get them out of harm's way. But that's not how
this rescue mission unfolded. Spread out among five isolated camps in Alaska's
Southeast, 1,500 miles from home, in strange rain-forest land that felt
suffocating to those accustomed to treeless, windswept tundra, the Aleuts were left
to languish from neglect, malnutrition and disease.
Among the most deplorable conditions were at Funter Bay on Admiralty Island,
where Lekanof and others from the Pribilofs ended up and many died. Those from
St. George moved into a decrepit old gold mine and those from St. Paul to an
equally dilapidated, abandoned cannery. With light pouring in between cracks
and people falling through dry rotted floors, these places were vermin-ridden
and incapable of being heated. Survivors speak of constantly being cold and
hungry and sick.
An estimated one in 10 died in the camps, a death rate not far behind the
percentage of American soldiers who perished in prisoner of war camps in World
War II. And then those who survived returned home to find their houses and
churches ransacked and plundered, not by Japanese invaders but in many cases by
their own country's military forces who lived in them and helped themselves while
residents were away.
For decades, what was done to the Aleuts by their government was too hurtful
and humiliating to talk about. And, as Hope says, to speak up would have
With a new documentary, "Aleut Story," soon to be airing on public television
stations across the country, many Americans will be hearing of this for the
"Aleut Story" will be shown on public broadcasting stations in Alaska at 9
p.m. Nov. 22 on KAKM (Channel 7) in Anchorage, KYUK in Bethel, KUAC in Fairbanks
and KTOO in Juneau.
HOW THE FILM CAME ABOUT
The Aleutian Pribilof Heritage Group commissioned Anchorage-based
SprocketHeads LLC to produce this documentary, with Carolyn Robinson as executive
producer and Steven Rychetnik as director of photography. Marla Williams, a former
Alaska print and broadcast journalist now based in Seattle, was the writer,
director and producer. Actor Martin Sheen narrated gratis.
Two weeks ago, this crew learned the film had been nominated for Best
Documentary Feature at the 30th annual American Indian Film Festival in San
Francisco. The winner was to be announced this weekend.
Although the television airing is yet to come, the big screen premiere in
Alaska was Monday at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub, with two screenings sold out to a
Jake Lestenkof, executive director of the Aleutian Pribilof Heritage Group
and former adjutant general for the Alaska National Guard, was surprised by the
"It's beyond all our expectations," he said.
Having seen the film, he introduced it at both screenings, then disappeared
between. This film, five years in the making, has been close to his heart. But
that didn't mean he could sit through it again.
Lestenkof was 10 when he and his family were sent to Funter Bay, where his
mother died. He was among those who helped break the silence years ago. And now
with the heritage group he heads having commissioned this film, the story will
reach a much wider audience. Yet watching it himself is still too difficult.
"I think there was a great reluctance on the part of the people to talk about
their experience in the camps," he said the afternoon of the premiere in a
Midtown coffee shop. "Too painful. I think it's still painful for a lot of
people. It's certainly not comfortable for me to talk about because I pretty much
erased it out of my mind, you know. For years."
Others had a hard time watching too.
Jenny Alowa, an Anchorage School District social studies teacher who grew up
on St. Lawrence Island, was among those at the Bear Tooth screening. The film
made her cry. And she wasn't the only one.
"It's a sad story in our Alaska Native history," she said. "It's a very
important story, and it's got to be told. It comes from the heart of the people.
"Hopefully it will be healing."
THE BIGGER STORY
"Aleut Story" started off as something entirely different. In 1999,
Lestenkof's wife, Sherry Valentine, head of the heritage group at the time, had the
idea of creating a short documentary on restoration of the six Russian Orthodox
churches damaged or destroyed during the war. These churches were ransacked and
looted of precious icons, and St. Nicholas church in Atka was burned to the
ground along with much of the village as part of a military policy of leaving
nothing behind to aid the enemy.
The restoration and reconstruction project was made possible as part of
hard-won settlement in 1988, which created the Aleutian Pribilof Islands
Restitution Trust. While rebuilding the churches was a spiritual and symbolic rebuilding
of community, it was only one piece of the story. It soon became evident it
was time to talk more openly about the rest of it.
PBS got involved. Then came major grants from the Aleutian Pribilof Islands
Restitution Trust, the Rasmuson Foundation, the Paul Allen Family Foundation
"It grew into a much larger project than originally envisioned," Lestenkof
The 90-minute documentary opens with archival footage and photographs of
Aleut evacuees, with survivors woven in telling what happened to them and their
families. Historians, academics, politicians and others on the periphery try to
make sense of it. Then the film takes viewers along as a handful of elders
return to Funter Bay 60 years later to tend the graves of those left behind.
There on the dock they sing a Slavonic hymn of deliverance, the same one sung when
the evacuees first arrived in 1942.
Even with all the stories, some of the most powerful moments in the film are
the long, pensive silences as survivors remember.
"I think that's part of listening to someone," said Williams, the film's
writer and director. "You aren't quite comfortable with it. That's the point. It's
not comfortable to talk about this. It's not comfortable to think about
A tremendous amount of research went into the making of this film -- hundreds
and hundreds of pages of documents coming from all kinds of sources, from
major national archives to a slip of paper that tumbled out of one survivor's
photo album as she told her story. From territorial records, letters, logs and
Western Union telegrams to the 1995 book "When the Wind Was a River: Aleut
Evacuation in World War II" by Dean Kohlhoff.
How could this have happened?
"In general there was a feeling that they simply wouldn't notice if they were
living in substandard conditions," Williams concluded. "These camps, in
particular Funter Bay, defied even that."
Camp bosses kept detailed logs of daily life, she said, "including logs that
read like this:
" 'July 19, '43: Every man, woman and child in camp is sick except for me and
the cook.' And then the next day, 'Every man, woman and child is sick except
for the cook.' Now the agent is sick. And the next day, 'Every man, woman and
child is sick in camp.' Period. Then you read the next day, 'So-and-so has
died.' And the next, 'So-and-so and so-and-so have died.' And this litany goes on
day after day. And then you read, 'We're starting to get better. Seems the
flu is over. And now this fellow and this fellow are building coffins.' "
Federal fish and wildlife agents were in charge of the Funter Bay camps where
Lekanof, Lestenkof and others from the Pribilofs were held. That story is
among this film's many layers -- how the Aleuts were used as slavelike labor for
the government-run sealing operation in the Pribilofs until they began a fight
for justice after the war. More than other camps, those at Funter Bay were
kept under tight control, since the government didn't want to lose such a
lucrative work force.
"There's always a silver lining to anything bad that happens," Lestenkof
said. "Because of their exposure to the outside world they were able to organize
and fight for some of their rights."
A SLOW RECOVERY
The first gathering of internment survivors didn't come until the 60th
anniversary of the bombing of Dutch Harbor. Among those who came to Unalaska for the
event was a Jewish woman who'd survived the German concentration camps, Hope
said. She'd become a grief counselor and invited internment survivors to meet
"I thought, what a wonderful opportunity," Hope said. "This is what we need.
I called all the elders and told them she was there. And I said ... 'you don't
have to talk; we can just listen and see what she has to say.'
"Two people showed up. They weren't ready.
"Our culture has been disrupted so many times, we have this feeling we don't
really want to talk to anybody from outside," she explained. "We don't feel we
But they were ready by the time Williams showed up with the camera crew.
That's because, according to Hope, Williams did it right.
She spent time with people before launching into the project, attending lots
of senior lunches in several Aleut communities, talking with people about
everything from her hopes for the project to arthritis. She didn't come to take
their stories, then go away.
"That was the magic step she took," Hope said, "coming out here, getting to
Williams, Lekanof and Hope flew to Anchorage for the premiere of "Aleut
Story" at the Bear Tooth and to take part in a panel discussion the following
night. The three also met with members of Mediak, an Alaska Native teen media club
sponsored by Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Koahnic Broadcast Corp., to
encourage them to seek out and tell important stories of their own.
"Our people haven't talked about this all this time, all these years and ...
just give me a second," Hope said, dabbing her eyes as she spoke to the kids.
"The elders, they started talking ..."
As students looked on, Williams asked Hope why she and other survivors
decided to go so public even though talking about it hurts.
"It's something we trustees felt strongly about, that we needed to get the
story told to the rest of the world," Hope said.
"And we felt it needed to start with us."
"But were you prepared for what we put you through in terms of making the
film?" Williams asked.
"No. But it was something we felt we had to do. And God put you there."
Williams stood in the back of the theater during both screenings. She said it
felt like "surround sound" watching people watch her work. Not entirely
But she wanted to get some sense of whether survivors in the audience thought
she got it right and if the film resonated with others more removed. She
asked people in the lobby, in the women's restroom, wherever they happened to be,
why they had stood in line on such an exceptionally cold night to see the
Some said because they were Aleut. Others had friends who were Aleut. And
then there were those who came because they'd never heard of this and couldn't
understand how that could be.
Allison Warden felt that way.
"I had no idea," she said. "It's not something I learned in school."
"In this case, two things made it difficult to get the story out," Williams
explained. "First of all, geographic isolation from most of America. And the
second thing we do have to confront and admit is there's a certain amount of
From all sides, that may be the hardest to face up to.
"One thing that came out of it," Hope said, "is that everybody agrees that
something like this should never be allowed to happen to another group of
"You can kind of guess there was a lot of anger. I was very young when I was
taken away; my anger is for what my parents went through.
"But it's been 60 years now this anger has been there, and unfortunately what
I'm seeing looking at our young kids at home is it's being passed from
generation to generation. It's got to stop somewhere.
"It's helped me, and I imagine it's helped a lot of the others survivors, to
tell the story and let it go."
Reporter Debra McKinney can be reached at dmckinney@....
The documentary will air on public television stations thoughout the United
States. In Alaska, it will be shown at 9 p.m. Nov. 22 on KAKM (Channel 7) in
Anchorage, KYUK in Bethel, KUAC in Fairbanks and KTOO in Juneau.
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