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Aleut Fact Sheet (Unangan)

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Aleut tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Aleut website for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Aleut pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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    Aleut Tribe

How do you pronounce the word "Aleut"? What does it mean?
Aleut is pronounced "al-yoot." This was the Russian name for their tribe, and nobody is sure about its origin-- it may have been a word from a Siberian language, or else it could have been a Russian corruption of the Aleut word for "community," allithuh. Their name for themselves in their own language is Unangan (plural) or Unangax (singular), which means "coast people." Today, however, most of the people also refer to themselves as Aleut.

What about "Eskimos"? Is that an offensive word or not?
It depends who you ask. Some Arctic Native people consider it insulting, while others use it themselves. Most Aleut people do not refer to their own tribe as Eskimos, but some do use "Eskimo" to refer to general cultural traits they share with other Arctic peoples like the Yup'ik, Alutiiq, and Inuit. It is definitely not a word from their own language, though. It was originally a name used by the Algonquian Indians for the Inuit people of eastern Canada. It may have come from a word for "eaters of raw flesh," or it may have come from a word for "snowshoe lacers." Here's an article about that.

Where do the Aleuts live?
The Aleut are original people of southwestern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Here is a map showing the location of traditional Aleut lands.

How is the Aleut nation organized?
Aleuts in the United States do not have reservations. Like most Alaska Natives, they live in Native villages instead. The Aleut Native villages are independent from one another, but they have formed a coalition called Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association which handles tribal government and land management on behalf of all the Aleut villages.

In the past, each Aleut village was governed by a village chief. This chief was always male, and was usually an elder from the most powerful family in the village. Today, Aleut villages are governed by tribal councils. Councilmembers are elected and can be either male or female.

What language do the Aleuts speak?
Almost all Aleut people speak English today, but some Aleuts, especially elders, also speak their native Aleut language. Aleut is a complicated language with many sounds that don't exist in English. If you'd like to know an easy Aleut word, "aang" (rhymes with "long") is a friendly greeting in Aleut. You can also read an Aleut picture dictionary here.

Today Aleut is an endangered language because most children aren't learning it anymore. However, some Aleut people are working to keep their language alive.

What was Aleut life like in ancient times? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the homepage of the Aleut Tribe.
There you can find information about Aleut culture in the past and today.

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How do Aleut children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Aleut children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have dolls, toys and games to play. Aleut mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradle boards, not in the hoods of their parkas as women in other Arctic cultures did.

What were Aleut homes like in the past? Did they build igloos?
Aleut people did not build igloos like their relatives the Inuit. The Aleuts lived in earth houses called barabaras or ulax. An Aleut barabara was made by digging an underground pit, raising a frame of wood and whale bones over it, covering the frame with grass mats, and then packing the whole structure in layers of earth to insulate it. Since Aleut barabaras were partially underground, they were larger than they appeared. Some Aleut houses were more than 150 feet long. Usually they had multiple rooms, and each one provided shelter to several families from the same clan. Here are some pictures of native housing like the ones the Aleuts used. Aleut people do not live in old-fashioned barabaras anymore, any more than other Americans live in log cabins. Aleut people today live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Aleut clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Aleut men and women both wore long tunics, parka coats, and sometimes loose pants. Most of their clothes were made out of sea lion or sea otter hides, but men's parkas were often made out of the skin of puffins and other seabirds, with the water-repellant feathers turned to the outside in wet weather and the inside in dry weather. Men would also wear a third layer called a kamleika while kayaking. Kamleikas were made of seal intestines and were highly waterproof. Aleut people also wore sealskin mittens and mukluk boots lined with grass, although some Aleut people surprised the Russians by preferring to go barefoot even in the snow! Here is a website on Native clothing styles.

The Aleuts didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Generally they did not wear anything on their heads at all, not even hoods like other Alaska Natives did. Hunters wore wooden hats or visors with special symbols and designs painted on them. Here is a museum exhibit showing an example of an Aleut hunting hat. For ceremonies, Aleut women wore beaded dance headdresses like this. The Aleuts painted their faces with different colors and designs for different occasions, and often wore tribal tattoos, especially chin tattoos for women. Both genders wore beaded necklaces and shell jewelry in their pierced ears and noses.

Today, some Aleut people still wear beaded necklaces or mukluks, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of sealskin trousers... and they only wear fancy regalia at special occasions like a dance.

What was Aleut transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
The Aleuts used skin boats, known as kayaks or baidarka. These boats were made by stretching sealskins over a light wooden frame, and were renowned for their speed and maneuverability. Here is a website about the construction of Aleutian kayaks. Only men were allowed to paddle a kayak in Aleut culture. Aleut women didn't travel by sea very often, but when they did, they used a different kind of ship called a nigilax, which was larger than a baidarka and had an open top like a canoe. The Aleuts used these two kinds of ships to travel up and down the sea coast for trading, fishing and hunting, and warfare. Here is a website with pictures of kayaks. Unlike other Arctic people, most Aleut communities did not use dog sleds. Dogs served as hunting companions and guard animals for the Aleuts, but not as transportation. When Aleut people traveled over land they walked themselves, using snowshoes like these to help them cross the snow.

What was Aleut food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Aleut were seafaring people. Aleut men hunted sea lions and other marine mammals from their kayaks. Sometimes they even harpooned whales. Aleut people also caught fish, shot birds, and gathered berries and other plants to add to their diet. Here is a website with more information about Native food.

What were Aleut weapons and tools like in the past?
Aleut hunters and fishermen primarily used harpoons and nets. To catch birds, hunters would sometimes throw bolas at them. Aleut warriors used bows and arrows and sometimes fought with spears. Sometimes they wore bulky armor made of wooden rods lashed together and carried hide shields to protect themselves from enemy archers. Here is a website of pictures and information about these different types of Native weapons, and another website displaying arrowheads and other Aleut artifacts from various sites. Aleut hunters would sometimes also wear wooden goggles with slits cut into them, to cut the glare of the Arctic sun.

What is Aleut art like?
Aleut artists are known for making baskets and carving arts, including wooden masks and walrus-ivory carvings. Here is a page of Aleut mask photos, and a good website about Alaska Native artwork in general.

What is Aleut music like?
The traditional Aleut musical instrument was the drum. Here is a picture of an Aleut drum. Only men played drums in Aleut culture, but both men and women sang and danced to the music. There were different songs for ceremonial occasions and social ones. Traditional Aleut musical arts went into decline after colonization, but today some Aleut people are reviving more of the old songs and traditions. Here is a video of Aleut people drumming and dancing at a cultural event.

What other Native Americans did the Aleut tribe interact with?
The Aleuts traveled widely by sea, and commonly visited the settlements of other coastal Alaska Natives such as the Alutiiq, Yup'ik, Tlingit, and Haida for trade purposes. The Aleuts were especially close with their eastern neighbors the Alutiiq, with whom they sometimes intermarried. On the other hand, they also fought frequent wars with the Alutiiq over territory, resources, or family feuds. These wars never lasted long, though, and they usually returned quickly to being friendly trading partners.

What kinds of stories do the Aleuts tell?
There are lots of traditional Aleut legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Aleut culture. Here is one Aleut legend about the girl who married the moon. Here's a website where you can read more about Aleut mythology.

What about Aleut religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Aleut life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Aleut people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about Aleut beliefs or this site about indigenous religious traditions in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
You may enjoy Children of the Midnight Sun, an excellent book about the lives of contemporary Alaska Native children. Two of the eight children profiled are Aleut. Older readers may like Aleutian Sparrow, an interesting book about the evacuation and internment of the Aleut people during World War II. If you want to know more about Aleut culture and history, two good books you could get are Alaskan Eskimos and Aleuts and Arctic Peoples. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended Native books in general. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book through one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thanks for your interest in the Aleut Native people and their language!

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Learn More About The Aleutians

Aleut Tribe
An overview of the Aleut Indians, their language and history.

Aleut Language Resources
Aleut language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Aleut Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Aleut Native Americans past and present.

Aleut Words
Native Aleut vocabulary lists.

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