By Jeannette Lee
Many in the film are speaking publicly for the first time about their experiences in the camps, where they were sent after troops from Japan invaded Alaska's western outposts in June 1942.
"My mother, when she was living, she used to start crying, so we wouldn't talk about it," Bourdukofsky told The Associated Press. Bourdukofsky, now 82, was a young mother of two during the evacuation.
Many Aleuts were thankful to be ferried out of the war zone, until they arrived at five overcrowded, disease-infested sites scattered throughout damp spruce rainforests.
"There was a lot of sickness at the camp," said retired Maj. Gen. Jake Lestenkof, who was 11 years old when his mother died of pneumonia at a camp at Funter Bay.
"There was a lot of pneumonia and tuberculosis that was going around and not treated. There were certainly no medical facilities or personnel," Lestenkof, 73, told the AP.
One in 10 people died in the camps from 1942 to 1945, according to federal estimates cited in the film.
Sanitation and pipe systems were never installed. Residents drank water tainted with sewage and—at one camp—runoff from the expanding cemetery.
Sites included an abandoned fish cannery and a rotting gold mining camp.
"It was terrible," said Maria Turnpaugh, 78, from her home in Unalaska. "We lived in little shacks full of holes, and no running water. People got sick all the time."
Aleuts weren't suspected of spying or sabotage, as were tens of thousands of Japanese Americans corralled into federal internment camps after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
"I looked hard for evidence that there had been any suggestion at any time" of Aleut spies, said Marla Williams, who wrote, directed and produced the film. "There was no question of their loyalty whatsoever."
The film includes letters from officials who thought internment would protect Aleuts from the fighting in Alaska's distant western islands.
Still, Aleuts weren't allowed to leave the camps without penalty unless they had been drafted into the military, or threatened into working the Pribilof fur seal hunt, which brought millions in income to the U.S. government.
Evacuation and Internment, 1942-1945
The Unangax were transported to Southeast Alaska and there crowded into "duration villages": abandoned canneries, a herring saltery, and gold mine camp-rotting facilities with no plumbing, electricity or toilets. The Unangax lacked warm winter clothes, and camp food was poor, the water tainted. Accustomed to living in a world without trees, one open to the expansive sky, they suddenly found themselves crowded under the dense, shadowed canopy of the Southeast rainforest. For two years they would remain in these dark places, struggling to survive. Illness of one form or another struck all the evacuees, but medical care was often nonexistent, and the authorities were dismissive of the their complaints. Pneumonia and tuberculosis took the very young and the old. Thirty-two died at the Funter Bay camp, seventeen at Killisnoo, twenty at Ward lake, five at Burnett Inlet. With the death of the elders so, too, passed their knowledge of traditional Unangan ways.
Comment: Removing people from an alleged war zone is one thing. But if there was no question about the Aleuts' loyalty, why did the government put them in disease-ridden prison camps with no plumbing or electricity? The 10% death toll was worse than that of Manzanar or Guantanamo Bay, America's most famous concentration camps.
To reiterate, interning Japanese Americans was one of the worst constitutional violations ever. But the government didn't suspect the Aleuts of anything, yet imprisoned them in even worse conditions. How do we explain that?
I can only imagine it had something to do with the Aleuts' race. They were closely related to the Asians across the Bering Strait. Asians who came from one totalitarian state or another (the USSR, China, or Japan).
The Aleuts had the same stoic demeanor as the Japanese Americans, who were also suspect. Sure, the Aleuts acted as if they were loyal to the US, but who knew what evil lurked behind those inscrutable eyes? Better to be safe than sorry, the reasoning undoubtedly went.
Can't trust those Asians?
I think the book Mother America--A Living Story of Democracy by Carlos Romulo summed up what many Americans thought (and still think) about Asians:
Although we also imprisoned some German and Italian Americans during WW II, brown-skinned people from Asia are most likely to become our prisoners of war. Perhaps not coincidentally, Asians, Indians, and Arabs aren't featured much on the screen. There seems to be a pattern here--i.e., discrimination against anyone with Asian roots.
For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.