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Village Sides
Afognak Village History, Chapter 3

Compiled and Written by Dr. Gordon Pullar
Copyright © 2004 Native Village of Afognak

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In western culture we are conditioned to believe that communities, towns and cities generally stay in the same geographic position forever. This may often be the case but perhaps just as often communities have boundaries that shift over time. Many, if not most, indigenous peoples commonly move entire settlements for a variety of reasons. These can be economic, political or a host of other reasons including simply finding a more comfortable location. The Alutiiq culture area certainly reflects this practice. Archaeological evidence reveals that villages were located at the mouths of just about every salmon stream as well as many other places. According to archaeologist Donald Clark, “Afognak Island has been the home of populous Eskimoan maritime hunters, ancestors of the historic Alutiiq people, for the last 7000 years or longer. Villages were located in every bay and at the mouth of every important salmon stream.”1 People lived in these locations, sometimes for centuries, and then moved elsewhere. Then decades or even centuries later returned to the original location.

Villages also may not retain the same name designation over time. Or, more commonly, outsiders may decide what a village name is based on faulty information and perpetuate a false name by publishing it. Prior to contact by Westerners it is difficult if not impossible to know what names Native villages applied to themselves. Thus, the village of Afognak is difficult to define by name as the first recorded names came from the arrival of the Russians there in 1784. The Russian designations may not always have been accurate either. We do know that by the late 19th century and early 20th century the village had two identifiable sides, one called Russian Town and one called Aleut Town.2 Aleut Town was called Ag’uaneq3 in the Alutiiq language and Russian Town was called Derevnia4 in Russian. There have been other designations for Afognak village, however. Anthropologists Lydia Black and Donald Clark refer to Naschkuchalik as an Alutiiq village listed in the Russian 1796-1804 census at the location that became known as Aleut Town. The Russian Town area was then referred to as Rubtsovskoe Village.5 Kattagmiut is mentioned as one of the relocation centers for survivors of the 1837 smallpox epidemic and must be Afognak according to researcher Sonja Lührmann.6

By 1820 when Matvei I. Murav’ev became chief manager of the Russian-American Company he was faced with the problem of an aging workforce. Many Russian workers were unable to work any longer and were petitioning the company for support for themselves and their families.7 The problem for the company was exacerbated by the fact that many if not most Russian workers had taken Alutiiq wives. The children of these marriages were classified as “Creole” and were thus members of a political class of people belonging to the colonies and who had no obligation to pay taxes in Russia.8 The Russian workers were subject to taxes in Russia and taxes had been deducted from their salaries while they worked in Alaska.9 This presented a special problem because some of the workers were deep in debt because of the taxes they owed.10 Murav’ev sought tax relief for the aged workers but was flatly denied by the Main Office in Russia of the Russian-American Company.11 The Main Office did authorize a solution, however. It directed “that incapacitated old Russians in the Kodiak district should be settled along streams where they could fish and garden and feed themselves and might even produce a surplus to be sold.”12

In implementing the directive from the Main Office, Murav’ev offered the retirees an option. They could return to Russia if they still had the strength or they could settle with their families near fish streams as the Main Office had said.13 The retirees who opted to stay received the standard company ration of about 36 pounds of flour per month as well as a small pension and an entitlement to emergency aid. From the pension they were expected to buy things they could not produce and to continue to pay taxes for which they were liable.14 The retirees were also provided with a year’s supply of food from the company when they retired.15 They were allowed to supplement their incomes by selling furs, fish or produce. Furs could be sold only to the company, however, and at the same rate that Natives sold them so that the retirees could not set themselves up as middlemen.16

The policy of allowing retirees to settle stayed in effect throughout the 1820s and the terms of managers Murav’ev and Chistiakov were still in effect when Ferdinand Wrangell took over in 1830.17 The policy had the unintended effect, however, of imposing a hardship on local Native villages they were located close to as they had to compete for the same resources. This was especially true of Afognak where the retiree settlement was very close to the Alutiiq village.18 While this policy was lost in history to many, including the residents of Afognak, it marked the beginning of a dual village. And the two sides of Afognak, Russian Town and Aleut Town, would remain for the rest of Afognak’s existence.

As most of the Russian retirees had Alutiiq wives and their children were of mixed blood, both sides of the village were inhabited by Natives after only one generation. In 1858 there were 240 colonial citizens, or Russian-American Company retirees, in Alaska. Just three years later the number had dwindled to 94, including 50 on Afognak.19 According to Higginson, the offspring of Russian men and Native women were not classified as colonial citizens but rather as colonial settlers.20 “They have always lived on a higher plane of civilization than the natives, and among them may be found many skilled craftsmen,” Higginson said.21

Eli Lundy Huggins described Afognak Island in June of 1869 as having “several small villages” of “aboriginal natives.”22 Huggins called Afognak village the largest of these villages and added, “A mile and a half from this native village is a settlement of Russian half-breeds or ‘free creoles’ . . . The first settlers were a few runaway sailors from a Russian ship…”23 There is no evidence to support Huggins’ origin story of Afognak village. Huggins mentions what he calls “the neighboring native village.”24

Map of Russian Town
Map of Russian Town

Huggins described the “creole village” where he first visited when setting ashore on Afognak Island.

Scattered irregularly for a mile and a half along the edge of this forest are the fifty or sixty houses which constitute the creole village, or settlement. The dwellings are substantially built of hewed logs, as already described, each with its bath and other houses in the rear, and surrounded by kitchen gardens, a gentle south slope being, if possible, selected for the latter.25

As Huggins’ visit to Afognak was just two years after the United States had taken over rule of Alaska, the Russian culture was strong and prevalent in what he called “the creole village.” He described the home where he stayed in Russian Town:

I was met at the beach by several elderly men, including the priest and a Jewish trader, most of whom I had seen at Kadiak, each of whom uttered a formula bidding me welcome to the island and offering rest and refreshment. Having previously ascertained which Creole had the most comfortable home, I accepted his offer of ‘rest and refreshment’, after thanking the others and engaging to visit them before leaving the island. After a short walk, I was shown into a room scrupulously neat, where after a few moments, I was rejoined by my host and several members of his family, bringing in the inevitable ‘samovar’, a dish of smoked salmon cut into small slices, black bread ditto, butter, and reindeer tongues. The samovar, or tea urn, is, if I am not mistaken, a utensil peculiar to the Russians, with whom, it is no exaggeration to say, the samovar is more indispensable than any other article of household furniture.26

Huggins also described the construction of a new church in Afognak during his 1869 visit that provides a further picture of the layout of the village or villages.

At the time of my visit to Afognak, the people were engaged in building a new church, the one in use being too small, as well as badly decayed and out of repair. The site was about midway between the creole and native villages, so as to serve them both; for although the Russians and creoles in other respects assume a haughty tone with the natives, they would think it unchristian to make them worship in a separate church, or even a separate part of the church. 27

After visiting the new church Huggins continued, saying, “Leaving the church, I strolled down the beach toward the native village.”28 He asked the first Natives he encountered to take him to the chief, which they did. “Like nearly all savage chiefs, he was larger than an average native, with a physiology denoting a good deal of strength and shrewdness. . . After the usual salutations he asked me, in fair Russian, if it was true, as he had been told, that I had come to Afognak for no other purpose then to see the island and its people. I assured him that such was the case.”29

Visiting the chief’s house in Aleut Town for refreshments did not seem terribly different from the homes on the Russian Town side. Huggins said:

The samovar was soon produced, together with three suspicious looking glasses, one a piece for the chief and me, while the other was shared by the courtiers. Salmon eggs, fresh salmon, and salmon smoked were also brought, with a very little black bread. The tea was extremely weak, for which the chief apologized by saying that tea was ‘very dear since the Americans came to Kadiak.’ It would make his ‘heart glad’ if I would send him ‘two small drawings of tea sometime when opportunity occurred.30

Huggins’ description of leaving Aleut Town and heading back towards Russian Town suggests that the residents of Aleut Town perhaps did not venture into Russian Town much.

When I took my departure, the chief and his court went with me along the beach until the Creole village was in sight, when they stopped. Before crossing themselves and saying good-bye, the chief produced a fine, white ermineskin, and a small bundle, which proved on inspection to contain some dried reindeer tongues. These he presented to me, at the same time reminding me of the tea by saying that, as for himself, he seldom went anywhere, but he would send a trusty friend to my house next time any of his people went to Kadiak.31

Ivan Petroff, in his 1884 report on the 1880 U.S. Census, described Afognak as “two villages” with a total population of 339 made up of 195 Creoles and 144 Eskimo.32 Sheldon Jackson, the General Agent for Education in Alaska, described the Afognak of 1885 as “two villages,” saying, “Near by are the two villages of Afognak, with a population of 339. These reside in 32 good frame and log buildings, and cultivate 100 acres in potatoes and turnips. They have a large church, and ought to have a school.”33 The 1890 census report lists Afognak as a single village with a total population of 409 made up of 26 whites, 169 “mixed,” 77 Indian, and 137 Mongolian.34 The Superintendent of Census, Robert Porter, explains in the narrative that Afognak was “consolidated for enumerating purposes.”35 He goes on to say that Afognak “really consists of a series of settlements lining the long, curving beach.”36

Aleut Town Waterfront

Aleut Town Waterfront

Porter’s biases are revealed when he describes Russian Town, saying:

At the eastern mouth of Afognak straits and opposite Whale Island begins the creole village of Afognak, extending in a single row of dwellings, somewhat widely scattered, about three fourths of a mile along the beach. This settlement was founded during the first quarter of the present century under the name of Rutkovsky village by superannuated and pensioned employés of the Russian-American Company, who were encouraged to keep cattle and engage in agriculture upon a limited scale. Their descendents have always lived on a plane of civilization somewhat higher than that of their neighbors. Their representatives could always be found among the local officials of the Russian company in various districts and among the petty officers of their numerous fleet. The Afognak mechanics were prominent in the company’s shops, and even now we find several families that furnish competent carpenters and boatbuilders. The men of the village are much away from home hunting or trapping, or laboring at the canneries and employed on schooners or larger craft, or during the winter cutting cordwood and logs for the fishing and trading establishments; and in their absence the women and old men take care of the cattle and dig, plant, and weed their potato gardens, or cure the fish which were caught by the boys. Near the northern end of the creole village there is a neat chapel built by the people and a handsome school building erected by the United States government, and a trading store of the Alaska Commercial Company. A few white men, sea-otter hunters married to Afognak women, have settled here also, finding a safe and convenient harbor for their small schooners in a cove opening into Afognak straits.

Porter’s shorter description of Aleut Town implies that he considered the residents there less “civilized” then than their Russian Town neighbors:

Proceeding northward a few hundred yards over a well-beaten trail we find the native village of Afognak, inhabited by Kadiak Eskimo. In contrast to the well-constructed log and frame houses of the creoles we find here a large number of sod and log huts, all covered with earth and scattered irregularly over a piece of swampy ground, protected from inroads of the sea by a high ridge of bowlders and shingle.

Nearly all the men of this village are carried away every summer to distant sea-otter grounds by the trading companies; a few are also scattered over the various winter stations, the remainder trap on Afognak and adjoining islands for foxes and land otters, and all who desire it can find additional employment at chopping wood during the winter.37

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century Hodge described Afognak as, “A Kaniagmiut settlement consisting of 3 villages on Afognak id.”38 Author Ella Higginson wrote in 1908:

The village of Afognak is located at the southwestern end of Litnik Bay. It is divided into two distinct settlements, the most southerly of which has a population of about one hundred and fifty white and half-breed people. A high, grassy bluff, named Graveyard Point, separates this part of the village from that to the northward, which is entirely a native settlement of probably fifty persons. 39

By the late 19th century it would have been difficult to tell, by appearance, which side of the village a person came from. Despite this, the village continued with its dual identity. Often times, the residents of Derevnia referred to themselves as “Russians.” This designation became somewhat problematic when a new influx of outsiders arrived in Afognak beginning the late 19th century. These were mostly Scandinavian men who had come to Alaska to take advantage of the money to be made in the commercial fishing industry. Many of them married women from Russian Town and settled in that side of the village. In 1908, Higginson said, “The white men of Afognak are nearly all Scandinavians, married to, or living with, native women.”40 There were, of course, other immigrants who arrived as well and also apparently settled in Russian Town. Mostly men, they came from many places including the continental United States. Thus Russian Town developed an identity broader than simply “Russian.” It became thought of as a European or “white people’s” village despite the fact that the residents continued to possess considerable Alutiiq blood. Carl G. Larsen was the son of a Norwegian immigrant and an Alutiiq mother and was a resident of Russian Town. While a student in Afognak School in the early 1930s, he drew a detailed map of the village in which he labeled the two sides of the village “Aleut Village” and “White People’s Village.”41

If there is one thing that is remembered by everyone who describes the village of Afognak it’s that the village was divided into two sides. Most commonly referred to as Russian Town on one side and Aleut Town on the other, some residents of the Aleut Town side referred to the Russian Town side simply as “The Other Side.”42 Former Afognak resident Juney Mullan said, “There were two sides to the village and I don’t really know where the border was or where the dividing line was.” Mullan continued, “People living in the Aleut Town side of the village often referred to the Russian Town side of the village as the ‘Other Side’ or the ‘Other End.’”

There were some residents, however, who identified more with living in the middle, between the two sides. Alan Lukin, born in 1953, remembered living between the two sides. “I think I can probably remember as far back as third grade maybe. It was, you know, Afognak was, back then Afognak looked big to me, you know. Because we had to walk, you know, walk to school, walk to pack water. But we lived probably the middle part of town, you know there’s Aleut Town and then the new town, we’re kind of in the middle. So it wasn’t too far of a walk to the school,” he said.

When school teacher Hannah Breece arrived in Afognak in 1904 she noted, “Afognak was actually two villages, two and a half miles apart, each on a shallow bay with a wooded cape jutting between them that concealed each settlement from each other. A marsh laid between the two, and there one had to keep a plank walk because quicksand, sinkholes and the deep moss were treacherous. . . A chattery little river spanned by rustic bridge also separated the settlements. One was Aleut, the other thought of as Russian.” The fact that Breece chose the phrase thought of as Russian indicates that to her the people of both sides appeared to be Native.

Afognak Class

Class key

Afognak School class, year unknown

Breece described the homes she visited in each side of the village. When she visited the homes in Aleut Town she said, “Wherever people were home I was greeted and entertained courteously. Parents and each child shook hands with me and offered me the best chair or box in the room. The Aleut houses were all furnished scantily and crudely but they had plentiful bedding, all piled on one bed during the day. In some houses the pile almost reached the ceiling.”44

Breece’s observations of the homes in Russian Town revealed stark differences. She said:

Homes there were a marked contrast to the Aleuts’. Some boasted plush-covered chairs and tête-à-têtes in peacock blue or scarlet. Although the squared-off-log walls were not plastered, they were neatly papered on a cheesecloth backing. I was impressed by a sense of whiteness whenever we entered a best room: floors were sanded and scoured white; rugs were strips of pure white canvas; curtains were white lace brightened with pinned-on paper flowers. I never saw so much crochet work in my life; it adorned every available piece of furniture, and the white bedspreads were crocheted or knitted. A typical best room contained a bed, a table, some chairs (including a rocker), a sewing machine, some sort of music box and at least one accordion. In the center of the building, so it kept all the rooms warm, was a wood-burning Russian heater with thick clay walls. Once it was fired up, the heat it stored kept the place warm at night, which is why the indoor plants the Russian villagers loved did not freeze.

Every house had a holy corner, as they called it, with a religious print, painting or hammered brass depicting either the Virgin or an apostle, and a little shelf with an incense lamp and a bottle of holy water. This corner, they told me, was never disturbed. When a house was abandoned, or the last member of a household died, the holy corner remained until the house fell or was torn down; then the nearest relative took custody of the holy objects.

The best room of each house had a life-sized portrait of the Czar, and almost always one of the Czarina too.45

Depending partly on which side a person lived, the perceptions of each side differed. Some felt that the designations were an artifact from the past and had no real meaning other than identifying a geographic location. There are others, however, who felt there was a certain level of animosity between the two sides. Specifically, some residents of Aleut Town felt that the residents of Russian Town felt they occupied a higher social class and felt superior to the Aleut Town residents. Residents of both sides attended the same church and the children attended the same school. It is interesting to note that very few people seem to know how the village came to be identified as having two sides.

Schoolteacher Breece noticed that there was some tension between the two sides of Afognak village. “The Russians were part Russian, or part European of another nationality, and part Aleut. They were regarded by themselves and seemingly by the Aleuts as the higher social class. They were also thought of as richer, but it seemed clear to me that the value of the boats, seines and hunting equipment I had noticed in the Aleut village represented at least as much investment as the Russians’ houses and furnishings.”46

According to Breece the children from Russian Town treated the children from Aleut Town “shamefully.”47 She described one incident that occurred shortly after her arrival when she had pupils from both sides of the village. It appears that the relationship between the two sides began to improve, even during the time Breece spent in Afognak.48

Enola (Von Scheele) Mullan, born in Afognak in 1905 and a resident of Russian Town, described the division of the village when she was growing up there.

They lived apart and didn’t visit each other much, from one end of the village to the other, although there was some visiting between them. But they sort of kept apart. Like I was never in many of the homes. We didn’t mix much for some reason, although we did go for walks in that end of the village. There were some houses that my mother always took things to…like food and clothing and we all went with her to those houses. Otherwise, I never went visiting there and they hardly ever came to us except on errands.49

Johnny Pestrikoff, who was born in 1910 and lived in Aleut Town, remembered being bullied by the boys from Russian Town when he was a small child going to school in Afognak. He felt that these problems contributed to him quitting school in the fourth grade. Others, however, while acknowledging that the village was divided, do not recall that there were problems between the residents of the two sides of Afognak village.

Alice (Knagin) Spracher (1919-1999) said, “I don’t recall them having any friction or whatever you want to call it. But when I, when we first started school it was on The Other Side, like Derevnia or Russian Town. We had to walk….quite a long ways.”30

Juney Mullan said, “I don’t remember any conflict or anything like that. Like those people over here or these people over here, you know. I think the Other End and Aleut Town was just, by the time I came into existence, was just a term that had been brought back from maybe early, when the village was just developed, you know, where the Aleuts lived on one side and the Russians on the other.”

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1 Clark, Donald W. Afognak before the Russians: Precontact History of Afognak Village and Vincinity. Report to the Native Village of Afognak, October 1999

2 Lührmann, Sonja. Alutiiq Villages Under Russian and U.S. Rule. Unpublished M.A. thesis. Der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Institut für Historische Ethnologie.

3 Pestrikoff, Julia. Interview September 18, 1998

4 Pestrikoff, Julia. Interview July 24, 1998.

5 Black, Lydia T. and Donald W. Clark. Afognak History (First Edited Draft): Extracts from a Document on the History of Kodiak’s Villages. Unpublished manuscript. June 2002. p. 11.

6 Lührmann, p. 52.

7 Arndt, Katherine L. “Released to reside forever in the colonies: Founding of a Russian-American Company Retirement Settlement at Ninilchik, Alaska.” In: Adventures Through Time: Readings in the Anthropology of Cook Inlet, Alaska. (Davis, Nancy Yaw and William E. eds.) Cook Inlet Historical Society. 1996. p. 237.

8 ibid. p. 237-238.

9 ibid. p. 237.

10 ibid. p. 238.

11 ibid. p. 238.

12 ibid. p. 238 from Tikhmenev 1861:54.

13 ibid. p. 238.

14 ibid p. 238.

15 Gibson, James R. Imperial Russia in Frontier America. Oxford University Press. 1976. p. 98.

16 Arndt, Katherine L. “Released to reside forever in the colonies: Founding of a Russian-American Company Retirement Settlement at Ninilchik, Alaska.” In: Adventures Through Time: Readings in the Anthropology of Cook Inlet, Alaska. (Davis, Nancy Yaw and William E. eds.) Cook Inlet Historical Society. 1996. p. 238-239.

17 ibid. p. 239.

18 ibid. p. 239.

19 Gibson. p. 98.

20 Higginson, Ella. Alaska: The Great Country. The MacMillan Company. 1908. p. 345.

21 ibid. p. 345.

22 Huggins, Eli Lundy. Kodiak and Afognak Life, 1868-1870. Kingston, Ontario: The Limestone Press. 1981. p. 23.

23 ibid. p. 23

24 ibid. p. 23

25 ibid. p. 26

26 ibid. p. 26

27 ibid. p. 28

28 ibid. p. 29

29 ibid.

30 ibid. p. 30

31 ibid. p. 30

32 Petroff, Ivan. Report on the Population, Industries, and Resources of Alaska. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884. p. 29.

33 Jackson, Sheldon. Report on Education in Alaska. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1886. p. 14.

34 Porter, Robert P. Report on Population and Resources of Alaska at the Eleventh Census. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1893. p. 4.

35 Ibid. p. 73.

36 Ibid. pp. 73-74.

37 Ibid. p. 74.

38 Hodge, Fredrick Webb (ed.). Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. (Part 1) Washington: Government Printing Office, 1912 (Fourth impression). p. 20.

39 Higginson, Ella. Alaska: The Great Country. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1908. p. 344.

40 Ibid. p. 345.

41 Original map on file at the Alaska State Archives, Juneau.

42 Simeonoff, Helen. Interview

43 Jacobs, Jane. A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska: The Story of Hannah Breece. Random House: Toronto. 1995. p. 13.

44 ibid. p. 14.

45 ibid. p. 16.

46 ibid. p. 16-17.

47 ibid. p. 17

48 ibid. p. 18

49 Interview, July 12, 1983, by Joanne Mulcahy.

50 Spracher, Alice. Interview September 18, 1998.

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Afognak History