Over the years, Lara Croft has visited some of the coldest and most remote places on the planet and the Aleutian Islands are no exception.
In Tomb Raider II: The Golden Mask, Lara travels to Melnikov Island in search of the legendary Golden Mask of Tornarsuk and ends up infiltrating an old Soviet base in the process. Melnikov Island is completely fictional but the Aleutian Islands themselves are very much real. What’s more, they are thought to have been home to some of the first humans to settle in North America during the last Ice Age.
And while there are no rivers of molten gold flowing under them, the islands’ real history and archaeological remains more than make up for it.
The Aleutian Islands stretch from Alaska to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. They are home to large colonies of seabirds, and consist of dozens of volcanic islands characterised by steep mountains, rocky shores, frequent fog cover, strong winds, and heavy rainfall. Not the best place for a summer holiday, perhaps, but these sparsely populated islands are the perfect place for a secret Soviet mining operation.
In reality, most of the islands are now part of the American state of Alaska. Only the westernmost islands, the so-called Commander Islands, are Russian territory. Some of the islands were captured by the Japanese during World War II but there is no evidence for Russian occupation during the Cold War.
That’s not to say that the Russians had nothing to do with the islands. On the contrary.
The Aleutian Islands were first recorded by European explorers in the 1730s as part of the Russian Empire’s Great Northern Expedition, led by the Danish explorer and Imperial Commander Vitus Bering and his Russian deputy, Aleksei Chirikov. Their crews soon discovered that the islands were home to large populations of Northern fur seals, sea otters, and other fur-bearing animals. Once this news reached Russia, fur hunters began to flock to the islands and eastwards into Alaska, displacing the native Aleut (Unangan) people and allowing the Russian Empire to gain a foothold in North America.
The region remained under Russian control until 1867, when a cash-strapped Russian Empire sold Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the United States for the tidy sum of $7.2 million. That’s almost $120 million in today’s economy.
Now, the map seen in Golden Mask’s loading screen places Melnikov Island somewhere between the islands Seguam and Yunaska. A quick glance on Google Maps suggests that the game could have taken place on Amukta Island or nearby Chagulak.
Both of these islands are part of the island chain known as the Islands of the Four Mountains, which refers to the volcanoes that tower over four of the islands. Amukta and Chagulak are both small, uninhabited, mountainous islands that appear to have little of archaeological interest. They may appeal to geologists or birdwatchers but anyone looking for traces of ancient Aleut culture will need to look elsewhere.
Most of those who claim Aleut ancestry now live on mainland Alaska or in one of the island chain’s towns and villages, like Unalaska, Akutan, and Sand Point. Their ancestors once occupied a region that not only included the Aleutian Islands but also parts of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the westernmost section of the Alaska Peninsula. Prehistoric settlements can be found dotted across the islands but it is hard to determine when the islands were first occupied. Many of the Aleutian Islands’ earliest settlements were probably submerged when the sea levels rose following the end of the last Ice Age.
Most of the surviving settlements have been found along the coast and close to sources of fresh water and salmon streams. As hunter-gatherers, the ancient Aleut knew how to make the most of their surroundings. The men would hunt for sea mammals on the open sea on small kayaks (known as baidarkas or iqyax) made of driftwood and seal skin. The women occupied themselves with clothes making, weaving, and collecting berries, kelp, molluscs, and fish. Salmon, crabs, and cod still comprise an important part of the modern Aleut diet, though many residents no longer need to hunt for their own food.
The ancient Aleut once lived in partially subterranean homes called ulax (or barabara in Russian). These communal pit dwellings were warmed by hearths and oil lamps and had roofs and walls made from driftwood, sod, and woven grass mats. These offered families protection from the cold and the islands’ infamous strong winds. When the Aleut communities weren’t busy hunting for food or tending to the demands of everyday life, they devoted their time to arts, craftsmanship, and ceremony.
Traditional Aleut religion was animistic and relied on shamans to act as mediators between the human world and the spirit world. No easy task when you believe that everything around you, living and non-living, possesses a soul or spirit.
Dances and storytelling were popular forms of religious practice – and entertainment – and intricate masks carved from wood were often used to depict figures from Aleut mythology or history.
As I mentioned in another article, the Mask of Tornarsuk was not only modelled on an ancient Mycenaean artefact found thousands of miles away, it was also made from gold, a material not commonly used or valued by the indigenous tribes of northern Canada or Alaska. Tornarsuk was also an Inuit god and not worshipped by the tribes of the Aleutian Islands. In reality, Lara would probably be looking for human-looking masks made of driftwood or whalebone, characterised by their prominent noses, and decorated with feathers and paint made from berries and other natural pigments. You can find some examples of Aleut masks over here.
Traditional Aleut culture and art suffered under Russian colonisation and was negatively impacted by the influx of gold prospectors to Alaska in the late 19th century. Nevertheless many modern-day Aleut communities are making a tremendous effort to promote Aleut (Unangan) cultural heritage, language, and craftsmanship.
If you’d like to learn more about the Aleutian Islands and Aleut culture, check out the sites and sources listed below!
Sources & Further Reading:
- Alaska’s Heritage: Aleuts (Alaska History and Cultural Studies)
- Aleut (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
- Aleut (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)
- Aleut (Wikipedia)
- Aleutian Islands (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
- Aleutian Islands (Wikipedia)
- Aleutian Tradition (About.Com)
- Alutiiq and Aleut/Unangan History and Culture (Anchorage Museum)
- An Overview of Pre-Contact Aleut Culture (Alaska Native Knowledge Network)
- Culture of the Aleutian Islands (Museum of the Aleutians)
- History (Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association)
- The Unangan: Survival in the Aleutian Islands (Kellen Hinrichsen)
- Who Are the Unangan? (Alaska Fisheries Science Centre)