There is a sad rivalry about who first invented the concentration camp. Some say that it was the Spanish in Cuba in 1896, others point to the British in South Africa in 1900. However, long before this, one can read of pagan Romans herding captive peoples into military compounds in the first centuries AD and castle-building Norman and Teutonic knights herding peasants into ‘villages’ for enserfment in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. And what, after all, was the fate of Native Americans? It was to be sent to ‘reservations’ – code for concentration camps. Only seventy years ago, the Native Orthodox people of North America also endured the same fate.
Many may know that some 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps in the American War against Japan for control of the Pacific rim between 1941 and 1945, even though some 60% of these were American citizens. However, after the Japanese attack on Unalaska, from 1942 on, the Aleuts of America received the same treatment, as recounted in a recent film, ‘Aleut History’. This concerns the nightmarish deportation of the native peoples of the Aleutian and Pribylov Islands to Alaska.
All those who had even one eighth native blood were deported by order of Washington. The natives were not told where they were being taken, but were packed onto warships by force and sent to four different concentration camps. Conditions were appalling – hunger, the freezing cold, disease and death faced them. One federal agent who expressed his indignation received an official reprimand. At one camp, in the village of Killisnoo, the deportees were forced to drink muddy water and sheltered from Alaskan temperatures in unheated hutments. Their salvation came from native Tlingits who gave them blankets, salt and medicine. The petitions of the women for food and warmth for their children and requests for humanitarian aid were ignored by the authorities. This camp recorded the highest rate of mortality of any of the camps.
On Barnett Inlet the Aleuts were settled in the cabins of a long-abandoned canning factory. There was no heating, electricity, water or beds and hungry wolves roamed around them. Petitions were ignored and when, finally, the deportees were allowed to return to their homes in Unalaska in 1945, they found that their houses had been ransacked by American soldiers. Moreover, the soldiers had also ransacked the Aleuts’ Orthodox churches. A similar situation existed in the camp by Lake Ward. Deportees, both adults and children, in all the camps were infected by TB, pneumonia and skin diseases. Chronically undernourished, many died from hunger and lack of medicine.
The men were forced to work without pay in various sea-related tasks and told that if they refused, they and their families would have to stay in the camps for the rest of their lives. They were not allowed to move away or seek paid work elsewhere. To this day some visit the graves of those who died in this exile. They claim that the sheer cruelty of the US government was conditioned not by the state of war, but by inherently racist attitudes. One is reminded of the old cowboy saying: ‘The only good Indian is a dead one’.