The U.S. Forcibly Detained Native Alaskans During World War II

In the name of safety, Aleuts were held against their will under intolerable conditions in internment camps

Aleutian people stand on the deck of a ship forcibly evacuating them to southeastern Alaska. National Archives

The infamous Executive Order 9066, which singled out "resident enemy aliens" in the United States during World War II, forced 120,000 Americans of Japanese background into relocation camps like Manzanar. The EO targeted Americans of Italian and German ancestry, too, but also deeply affected another group of Americans—not because they were viewed as potential enemies of the state, but rather because indigenous Aleuts in Alaska were in a combat zone.

As John Smelcer explains for NPR’s Code Switch, in 1942, Japanese troops began to bomb the Aleutian Islands, a long chain of islands that stretch between Alaska and Japan in the Pacific Ocean. They seized and occupied parts of the islands—the first time since the War of 1812 that American territory had been occupied. The islands were of strategic value to the United States and Japan. Following Japan's aggression, the U.S. military decided to forcibly evacuate indigenous people from their homes to get them to safer locations, then destroy their villages with a scorched-earth policy to prevent invading Japanese troops from using their housing.

All in all, 881 Aleuts were forcibly relocated and interned, transported to unsanitary camps in southeast Alaska, and held there throughout the war. They were not consulted and, as Christopher Cueva writes for the Alaska Humanities Forum, the evacuation itself was hasty and traumatic. As one Fish & Wildlife Service member recalled, nobody was allowed to bring more than one suitcase of possessions. Troops then set fire to the villages that had been inhabited just days before rather than leave them to the Japanese invaders. Aleuts were shoved onto crowded boats with no idea where they were headed, Smelcer reports.

"The irony was that the Atkans were prepared to evacuate before a Japanese attack, and they could have been given time to take their belongings before the village was destroyed," the report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians later noted.

As the National Park Service writes, the internment camps the Aleut evacuees were forced to live in were "abandoned canneries, a herring saltery, and gold mine camp-rotting facilities with no plumbing, electricity or toilets.” There, they had little potable water, no warm winter clothing, and sub-par food. Nearly 10 percent of the evacuees died in the camps.

Those who lived struggled with the unfamiliar landscape. “The trees, more than anything, represented the strangeness and terror of their sudden relocation,” writes Eva Holland for the Alaska Dispatch News. The Aleutians are barren, treeless islands; Southeastern Alaska’s trees led the detainees to feel claustrophobic and depressed. Some of the men were even enslaved during their detainment, forced to harvest fur seals and threatened with continued detainment if they refused.

Aleuts were kept in camps as late as 1945—two full years after Japanese troops left the Aleutian Islands. Those who survived the war went home to find their villages burned and destroyed. It took 40 years for the Federal Government's Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the treatment of Aleut citizens during World War II. In a New York Times op-ed published when the first hearings into EO 9066 began, David Oyama wrote that the Aleut relocation and detention was done "under conditions that are as shocking as any in the long, sad history of the Government's relations with its Native-American citizens."

As Debra McKinney of Anchorage News writes, Aleuts stayed silent about their ordeal for years, suppressing the story out of both grief and fear that they would be considered unpatriotic for speaking up about their traumatic treatment. Though the United States ultimately issued a formal apology in 1988 and provided some reparations to the people detained there, the legacy of the Aleut people’s forcible relocation and harsh treatment endures.

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