Published Date

August 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 20: What Has Alaska to Offer Postwar Pioneers? (1944)



Alaskans come from every state in the Union and many were born in Alaska itself. They have a higher standard of living than is the average in the States. Able to bear up under hardships in remote districts, they demand and get comfort or even luxury in their towns. Alaskans have considerable staying power, much independence of thought and action, and a liking for a good joke, verbal or practical. Many are familiar with frontiers in other lands such as South America and Russia, and because of the long winters and the loneliness of many settlements, a great many Alaskans have a surprising familiarity with the world of books.

The most recent census, taken in 1939, recorded 39,170 whites in Alaska. Of these, 8,786 were of foreign birth. The northern European strain is strong among foreign-born Alaskans—the majority being Norwegian, Swedish, or Finnish.


The original Alaskans were probably Eastern peoples who in prehistoric times crossed the Bering Strait and made their way along the Aleutian chain in successive waves, becoming the ancestors of the American Indians. The descendants of these first settlers are the Eskimos, Aleuts, and Alaskan Indians of today. Altogether they numbered 32,458 in 1939. Most of the natives in remoter settlements live in rather primitive fashion, but increasing numbers are attending school and college and entering the trades and professions.

Many young couples from Alaska or the States spend a year or more as government teachers of the natives in a federal school. The pay is low and the life not easy, but for the right kind of person it is a rich and satisfying experience.

Eskimos are more numerous than Aleuts or Indians. They are a sturdy folk, more than 15,000 strong, living for the most part in the Arctic and the Bering coastal region. Consequently, you can live in parts of Alaska for years without seeing an Eskimo at home.

Alaskan Eskimos do not live in story-book dome-shaped houses of ice and snow, but in solid igloos (houses) of wood or bone and earth. They market the proceeds of their hunting and fishing through cooperative stores, which they own and manage under federal supervision. From the hides they make handsome parkas, mukluks (boots), and other articles of clothing.

Eskimos are intelligent, with a natural aptitude for drawing, map-making, carving, and mechanical repairing. They are honest, adaptable, and full of fun. Since they adopted the white man’s diet and housing, they have been ravaged by tuberculosis, only partly checked by the white man’s hospitals and nursing service.

The Aleuts number about 5,500 according to the last census. This is all that is left of a once-great nation that counted some 25,000 residents of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians. Originally they were related in blood and customs to the Eskimos, but the Aleut today has much Russian blood and also other Occidental strains. They were converted by the Russians to Christianity and still worship today in Russian Orthodox churches, with characteristic turnip- and carrot-shaped towers.

Aleuts are excellent seamen and live by fishing and fur farming. They are noted for their delicate grass baskets, the finest of which may take a year to weave. Most famous were the baskets made on Attu, westernmost of the Aleutians. In recent years, the tradition of basket weaving has been dying out.

About 500 Aleuts are sealers, living on the Pribilof Islands, where their ancestors were originally settled by the Russians to hunt the seal. Evacuated in 1941, they were recently brought back in government ships to resume sealing.

More than 11,000 Alaskan Indians live in interior and southeastern Alaska.

About 5,000 Athapascans, relatives of our Plains Indians, live in the interior in small villages, existing by fishing and hunting.

Most numerous of southeastern Alaskan Indians are the Tlingits, about 5,000 in number, carvers of totem poles, builders of fine wooden houses and great-beamed ceremonial halls, huntsmen and fishermen. They live today by fishing, fur farming and trapping, and carving.

Visitors usually buy small replicas of one of the forty-foot cedar totem poles which are the Tlingits’ family trees. The originals were set before the houses of the clans, to represent the animal symbolizing the clan and to record important events and heroes of family history. Nowadays, it is no longer a chief, but a business or a community organization which commissions the carving of a full-sized totem pole by a native carver. The job takes several weeks and costs several hundred dollars.

Relatives of the Tlingits from British Columbia, the Haida Indians number about 700 and live on the southern side of Prince of Wales Island.

Most Tsimshian Indians, who also came from British Columbia, live in their cooperative town of Metlakatla, where they operate a cannery and a fishing fleet. There are about 1,000 Tsimshians.

Next section: Who Built Alaska?