Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

April 12, 2024

Homelands -- Going Home to Unalaska, Reflecting on Palestine

 Photo by Make Access Iqyax Apprenticeships

It is one of the most important stories we've ever shared at Censored News. Thank you Mike Ferguson for sharing your journey home with us. During WWII, Mike's ancestors, Unangax (Aleuts) in the village of Attu were taken as prisoners of war to Japan. Aleuts that remained in their villages were forcibly removed by the US government and placed in internment camps in southeast Alaska, where many died of starvation and disease. Today, Mike is learning to build the iqyax̂, traditional seagoing vessel, and the youths are bringing back their dance that almost disappeared.

Mike Ferguson, Qawalangin, showing photo of his grandpa Alec McGlashan Jr (left) and his brother Tommy (right) courtesy Mike Ferguson.

Homelands, Going Home to Unalaska, Reflecting on Palestine

By Mike Ferguson
Unalaska, Aleutian Islands
Censored News
April 12, 2024

After the work day building iqyan (kayaks) for the Qawalangin tribe here in Unalaska, I joined a poetry reading at the library. I chose to read a short segment from Journal of an Ordinary Grief written by the Palestinian National Poet, Mahmoud Darwish.

I hadn’t previously read the chapter titled, ‘The Homeland: Between Memory and History,' which asks (through a conversation) what it means to lose a homeland.

Part of it says:

“And why are you now afraid of saying, 'Homeland is where my ancestors lived?'
You reject the pretext of your enemies, for this is what they say.

— What did you learn in school?
— Salute the bird returning from the distant land to my window in exile. Oh bird, tell me how are my ancestors and my people?
— And the song that came before that?
— They erased it.
— What are the words of the song they erased?
Salaam to you
Land of my ancestors
In you it’s good to dwell
And for you it’s good to sing.”

I asked the host of the poetry reading to put up a photo of my grandpa Alec McGlashan Jr (left) and his brother Tommy (right) while I read the poem.

Just minutes before reading that section from Darwish, I did some quick research and read online that Darwish was forcibly displaced from his home of Al-Birwa in Palestine at the age of 6 or 7 during the Nakba in 1948. Darwish died at the age of 67.

My grandfather was forcibly displaced from his native land of Akutan during WWII at the age of 6 or 7 in 1942. Grandpa died at the age of 67.

Attu is an Unangan village at the furthest west point in the Aleutian Islands. My great great grandmother Feckla Prokopioff was from Attu and was the daughter of the Chief of Attu, who was the son of the previous chief.

During WWII Attuans were prisoners of war in Japan. I don’t know much about that time, but the U.S. government decided to not relocate them to their native village after the war, thinking it was too much of an inconvenience for the government to relocate Attuans.

                                         Make Access Iqyax Apprenticeships

"We're beginning a five-iqyax̂ build today with the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska. In the next two weeks we’ll be working together, helping each other get these five iqyan onto Unalaska waters. They’ll be owned by the individual builders, which is part of the Tribe’s intention to begin growing an iqyax̂ group, or “canoe family” here. I love that!"

"We started the process by getting the builders out on the waters of Iliuliuk Bay in my 20” wide iqyax̂, just as a point of reference for designing in the characteristics each person wants in their iqyax̂. Pretty chilly out, but I think everyone had fun!"

"If you’re on the island, please come up to the shop to check things out and volunteer if you’d like. Call Anfesia at the Tribe office for details. Coffee’s on and goodies abound! Qagaasakung, Ounalashka Corporation for the shop space, The Aleut Foundation for travel help, and Qawalangin Tribe/Qawalangin Wellness for making the whole thing happen!"

American Concentration Camps: Unangax Loss and Resurrection

The Internment Camps in Southeast Alaska by Project 562

“From there we were interned for three and a half, four years. Our people were interned in camps in Southeast Alaska in abandoned mines or abandoned fish cannery camps.

There were a warehouse like spaces, big cracks in the floor, no insulation, nothing. They tell stories of having to put up wool blankets to cordon off their spaces. If your family was large, half the family would sleep half the night and then they’d wake them up and then the other half would sleep because it was too small for everyone to lay down at the same time. The families would spend up to three years like this.

There was no fresh food or anything like that. Our elders begged for guns, begged for boats, we’d plea, ‘Let us take care of ourselves we’ll feed ourselves.’ They wouldn’t give it to us.”

Video: See How Unangax Culture and Dance Resurrected, Despite WWII Internment Camps

The Unangax Dance Group led by Ethan Petticrew relied on the elders, and historical records to revive their traditional dance.
"We were nervous, we were afraid, we had never danced for a village before."
"There were elders with tears in their eyes."
The Chief stood up with tears in his eyes, this is what the people remembered, what was taken from them when they were forcibly removed to internment camps.
"This is our dance."

Video: See How Unangax Culture and Dance Resurrected, Despite WWII Internment Camps

Thank you Mike Ferguson for sharing your journey with Censored News.

In 1942, the Japanese invaded the western Aleutian Islands, home to the Unangax (Aleut) people for over 10,000 years and took 42 Attuans from their village as prisoners of war to Japan. About one-half died of starvation and disease. The survivors were never returned to their homeland. After the capture of the Attuans, the U.S. government forcibly removed about 900 Aleuts from their villages and relocated them to internment camps in southeast Alaska, where many were abandoned and died of starvation and disease. -- Censored News.

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