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Book Review:
Dean Kohlhoff, When the Wind Was a River: Aleut Evacuation in World War II

Lydia T. Black, Ph.D. / Reprinted from: Pacific Historical Review v65, n4 (Nov 1996)


The wind is not a river, goes an Aleut saying. At some point, it stops. The book I am reviewing is about the experience of a small group of indigenous Native American inhabitants of the Aleutian Archipelago during the so-called evacuation of World War II. The few short years in the camps were a misery without end for the Aleuts, grief that would never cease. Hence, the title. Dean Kohlhoff, whose specialty is modern American history, made a significant contribution to his field. His account, meticulously researched and based mostly on primary sources, including participants' accounts, demonstrates how prejudice and bureaucratic incompetence or, more accurately, bureaucrats' drives to forestall blame resulted in removal from their homeland of close to a thousand American citizens and their relocation in "evacuation camps": abandoned canneries and gold mines in unfamiliar territories. Here, the "evacuees" lacked food, cooking facilities, proper shelter, laundry and sanitary facilities, medical care, and were deprived of means to gain their subsistence from the land. They were compelled by orders, which now appear arbitrary but then were-covered by the term "military necessity," to leave behind their dories, guns, and fishing gear (which were then vandalized or wantonly destroyed by military personnel).

The author traces the debate among territorial authorities, U.S. Army and Navy leaders, and the Department of the Interior (which had "charge" of the Aleuts as "wards of the state," though theoretically they were citizens and many a young man served in the armed forces) about the necessity of Aleut removal from their scattered villages. The chart "United States Officials Involved in Aleut Evacuation" (pp. 188-9) is extremely helpful in understanding the bickering; eight civilian agencies were involved as well as the army and navy. To make a complicated picture extremely short, one may state that the army command and the territorial authorities were opposed to the removal, while the navy and the Department of the Interior (or rather several agencies of this department, with the possible exception of the field personnel in charge of the fur seal harvest in the Pribilofs) argued for it. The latter pointed to the loss of income for the U.S. Treasury if the Aleut fur sealers were removed. In fact, sealing crews were later transported from evacuation camps for a sealing season or two to keep the money flowing.

The fate of each village was different, and each village's population was placed in a different situation in the camps. Patiently, the author traces each separate development, clearly demonstrating that racial considerations were often at play. In the city of Unalaska, every person having "1/8 Aleut blood" was evacuated, including three women married to Americans of European origin. One of them died in the camps without ever seeing her husband again. The village of Atka was burned -- but not the entire village, only Aleut houses that had no indoor sanitary facilities and the church which contained artistic and historic treasures of almost two hundred years, including an altar rood carved by the first Aleut priest and chandeliers and candle holders, gifts of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. Quite separate stands the fate of the village of Attu, the only habitation on United States soil to be occupied by the Japanese. Taken as prisoners of war to Hokkaido Island, they returned to the U.S. but were not permitted to go home. Over half of them perished in Japan, and the few survivors scattered.

Kohlhoff not only documents the "evacuation" and the misery of the camps both in southeast Alaska and in Japan, he also tells us the story of the return. It was not, as Aleuts expected, a joyous homecoming. It was a shock to find their homes destroyed or defaced, their most treasured possessions looted; gone were the family photos, sacred icons, musical instruments, treasured china, record players, and records. Many people from smaller settlements, like the Attuans, were not permitted to go home and were deposited in two or three "central" habitations. Starting from scratch, they rebuilt their shattered lives and reformed their communities. The author ends on a positive note, following the Aleut tradition. The years spent in exile opened their eyes to the larger world and taught them to fight for their rights. And fight they did. It took them over forty years. but in the end they gained not only monetary recompense from the United States government for losses suffered but also an apology for a wrong unjustly suffered.

This is a good scholarly book that tells the reader about a tragedy endured without recourse to bathos. Some might consider it too dry. But as I reread one chapter after another, I remembered many of my friends who did not live to hear the apology or to see their communities receive the recompense for lives and memories lost. On their behalf I say to the author, "Thank you."


Pacific Historical Review v65, n4 (Nov, 1996):689 (3 pages).

Copright © 1996 by the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association.
Reproduced under fair usage, while actively seeking permission from the copyright owner.



Lydia T. Black, PhD., is Professor, Department of Anthropology,
PO Box 757720, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK 99775-7720 USA
tel +1.907.474.6760 -- email fflb@uaf.edu

Dr. Lydia Black is the univesity sponsor for the symposium,
Ioann Veniaminov in Alaska and Siberia and his Contribution to Arctic Social Science,
December 5-7, 1997 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.