Aleutian island’s descendants seek reconnection
Extreme forces created the Aleutian Islands, a chain of volcanoes carved by turbulent seas and gale-force winds. The windswept islands’ steep gorges and coastal cliffs were home to the Unangax People — native Aleutians — for over 10,000 years.
In the summer of 1942, Japanese soldiers invaded the westernmost island of Attu and took all the residents hostage. The Attuans were imprisoned in Otaru, Japan, for three years before the United States learned of their capture. But when the Attuans were rescued by U.S. military, they were not allowed to return home.
Today, their living descendants, Helena Schmitz and Theresa Deal, are working to create a sustainable program for Attuans to accompany researchers on annual visits to Attu. They recently formed a nonprofit, Restoring Attuans’ Freedom, to support that effort, and to return human remains now held at the Smithsonian Institute to Attu.
Mike Hodikoff, grandfather of Schmitz and Deal, was chief of the Attuans when WWII started. There were only 45 people living on the island at the time, 43 Attuans and two white Americans: radio operator Charles Jones and his wife, Etta, the school teacher. In her letters, Etta Jones described the beautiful Attuan homes and the residents as progressive, intelligent and friendly.
Archaeological sites on Attu suggest an estimated precontact population of 2,000 to 5,000 people. The women were renowned masters of weaving, using native grasses and plants only found on the island of Attu. Attuans were also known for their skilled construction of boats used for transportation and hunting. The Unangax people traveled the perilous seas to trade, hunt, and socialize with other islands in the Aleutian chain.
Ships from Russia, Japan and the United States came ashore occasionally for trade with the Attuans, but never stayed long in the inhospitable environment. Russia sold the islands, along with the rest of Alaska, to the United States in 1867. Alaska Natives claimed they still had title to the territory as original inhabitants who had never lost the land in war or ceded it to any country.
Residents of Attu did not believe the war would affect their small island thousands of miles from the mainland. But in May of 1942, the U.S. believed conflict with Japanese troops was a high possibility, and began evacuating the Aleutian Islands. But U.S. Forces were turned away by high winds and rough seas when they tried to approach Attu.
On June 3, 1942, the Japanese military bombed Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island, 850 miles from Attu. Radio operator Charles Jones relayed the information to Hodikoff, who feared for the safety of his people on Attu. On June 6, children reported seeing a Japanese ship off the shore of Attu. Jones believed the ship to be American and chose not report the sighting.
In the early morning hours of June 7, 1942, Japanese warships landed on Attu with 2,500 troops. Jones was slain immediately. Soldiers rounded up villagers and took command of the administrative building that held the radio equipment. Attuans were unable to communicate with the outside world.
For three months, thousands of Japanese troops occupied Attu, keeping villagers under house arrest, limiting their movement to gather food or firewood. To heat their homes, Attuans were forced to rip boards from their houses to use as fuel. No one outside of Attu was aware of the nightmare unfolding on the island.
Attuans resisted as much as possible. They repeatedly stole the Japanese flag. They misled soldiers — directing them to store supplies on a beach knowing that an impending storm would carry the cache out to sea.
In September of 1942, Japanese military chose to remove the remaining 43 residents to a prison camp in Japan. The reasons were clear: Attuans were a source of intelligence to the Americans and would most certainly engage in guerilla activities.
As Japanese soldiers loaded Attuans onto a dirty coal ship, the children fought back. Soldiers threw them below decks, kicking and screaming. Onshore, the beautiful homes of Attu were destroyed.
Two weeks later, the survivors arrived in Otaru, Japan. At the prison camp, everyone was assigned hard labor in the mines, or shoveling snow while barefoot. They were given a small amount of rice to eat each day. Half of the Attuans died from starvation, including their chief. Upon Hodikoff’s death, Mike Lokanin became chief.
The Japanese military communicated nothing to U.S. authorities about the invasion of Attu or the prisoners. It was if the Attuans had fallen off the face of the earth.
No going home
Three years after the Attuans were imprisoned, in early September of 1945, Alaskan Indian Service officials learned that the village of Attu was destroyed. Later that month, officials were notified for the first time of surviving Attuans. When U.S. soldiers arrived at the POW camp to liberate the Attuans, Lokanin took the liberty of punching a Japanese guard.
Surviving Attuans requested to return home, but officials at the Department of the Interior concluded that there were insufficient numbers of Attu people to justify the expense. Fifteen Attuans were placed on the island of Atka with the Atkans, five remained in Seattle hospitals, and four moved to Unalaska. Five children – orphaned through the ordeal — were sent to the Indian service school in Eklutna, Alaska.
Indian Bureau General Superintendent Don C. Foster declared, “settling the Attu people at Atka has saved the government an enormous amount.” Construction of six homes for Attuans in Atka was completed by salvaging army materials, “at no cost to our Department.”
The U.S. military took control of Attu island and prevented Attuans from returning to trap and harvest. The federal government gave the Attuans freedom and took it away at the same time.
The following year, in 1946, Ethel Ross Oliver was assigned as a schoolteacher to Atka. She worked with surviving Attuans to document their experiences, their stories and their cultural traditions. In her book, “Journal of an Aleutian Year,” she described the challenges facing “four little Attuans” in her classroom.
The children spoke Russian in church, Attuan at home, and were forced to learn and speak Japanese during the war years. In school, classes were taught in English or Atkan, a different dialect than Attu. The teacher tried to learn Aleutian, the common language, to help the little ones learn English.
Despite the overwhelming odds, some Attuans survived. But family connections and stories were lost with the parents. It has been a struggle to document their own history.
“We aren’t considered as prisoners of war by the government technically and that is why museums here in the U.S. cannot recognize that,” Helena Schmitz said, “We are always the nonexistent group.”
More than 75 years after the native people of Attu were taken captive, their surviving relatives are working on a way to return home.
Return to Attu
In 2012, Rachel Mason, senior anthropologist for the National Park Service, arranged an Attuan reunion in Anchorage, Alaska. Many Attuans had never met each other, as they were scattered after the war. For Theresa Deal, it was eye-opening to be in room full of people with faces similar to hers, and meeting long-lost relatives.
In August of 2017, Attuans were invited to board the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vessel Tiglax for a routine research visit to Attu. Deal describes the experience as a trip of a lifetime.
“We spent five hours on the island,” she said. “There was blue sky, it is rare to have such good weather. I got to see where my mom spent her younger years. We were on the ship a whole week to get to the island, getting to know long lost relatives.”
The children and grandchildren of the Attu gathered traditional plants for weaving and conducted a service of remembrance.
The following year, at an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Attu, Schmitz asked the director of Fish and Wildlife for access to the island, putting into motion the formalities of creating a government program to support trips to Attu for surviving Attuans.
Schmitz spent her high school summers working in Alaska with her aunt Loretta Riley at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Her college studies focused on creating a path to further help her people. Schmitz’s great uncle Steve Hodikoff was the last living Attuan to speak the language. “I have a crazy dream to try and learn it,” she said.
Schmitz said her mission is clear. “My ancestors speak through me and to me,” she said. “They speak through the ocean waves, the grains of sand from the ocean, the driftwood, the mountains and clouds above. I am a healer. I need to heal my ancestors, my grandparents, my relatives, and my family, so that my children will experience peace.”
To learn more about Attu and current efforts to preserve knowledge while honoring the past, follow Restoring Attuans’ Freedom on Facebook, or email email@example.com.
I first heard of Attu through my high school physics teacher, Marilee Hayashi. Recently, Hayashi invited me to a Facebook group, Restoring Attuans’ Freedom. A frequent poster in the group was a former classmate of mine, Brad Schmitz. He took Japanese language courses from Hayashi in high school, and kept in contact with her when he formed Alaska English Adventures to offer language immersion tours. I sent Brad a message asking for more information about the Restoring Attuans’ Freedom group, and he introduced me to his wife, Helena Schmitz. She is the granddaughter of Mike Hodikoff, who was chief of the Attuans when the village of Attu was captured by the Japanese in 1942. Schmitz has dedicated her life to preserving the cultural traditions and knowledge of Attuans, and recently formed the nonprofit group, Restoring Attuans’ Freedom, to support annual trips to Attu for Attuans.