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Thursday, February 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
WW II and the Aleuts: an American tragedy

By Tetsuden Kashima and Marla Williams
Special to The Times

An Aleut family disembarks at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, after three years in a "duration camp."
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On Feb. 19, 1942, in a time of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an infamous decree — Executive Order 9066 — setting in motion the incarceration of nearly 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry.

Largely ignored have been the devastating consequences of America's wartime policies for another group of United States citizens. Shaped by racial prejudice, government directives also set the stage in 1942 for the forcible removal and confinement of 881 Aleut Americans — citizens all.

The Aleuts' ordeal, one of the least known but more disturbing chapters in U.S. civil-rights history, is worth remembering today as an admonitory tale in this post-9-11 era of "preemptive war" and "enemy combatants."

As our nation struggles to balance individual rights with national security, the Aleuts' experience underscores a very real risk: If one group can be singled out, forcibly relocated and confined without probable cause, so can any other.

Ancestors of modern Aleuts, migrants from Asia, settled nearly 9,000 years ago along the Aleutian Chain — a wind-swept archipelago stretching west some 1,300 miles from mainland Alaska, dividing the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. In 1867, Aleuts were granted U.S. citizenship under terms of the treaty transferring Alaska from Russia to the United States.

In 1942, shortly after Japanese Americans on the West Coast were ordered to "relocation camps" enclosed with barbed wire, Aleut Americans were also summarily ordered to leave their homes and board Army transport ships bound for isolated "duration camps" some 1,500 miles away. During the Aleuts' prolonged absence, U.S. military forces looted their homes and churches.

The Aleut camps — rotting canneries and abandoned gold mines — were dark, dank places mired in the coastal muck of the Southeast Alaska rainforest. There was no running water, no heat, no privacy. The only toilets emptied directly onto the beach. Blankets, food and medical care were in short supply. One in 10 Aleuts would die there.

Technically, the Aleuts were not prisoners but neither were they free to leave the camps. Those who left or attempted to leave were told by federal agents that they would never see their homes again.

Some in government believed the Aleuts needed, like children, to be confined for their own good, safe from drink and debauchery. Other officials had more mercenary motives: For decades, the Aleuts had worked as virtual indentured servants in the federally controlled and highly lucrative fur-seal harvest and government agents didn't want to lose control of their labor force.

The Aleuts' loyalty to the United States was never in question — only their value as human beings. Sacrificing individual rights — and lives — in the name of the greater good put not only Aleut and Japanese Americans at risk, but all Americans.

On July 31, 1980, Congress and the White House initiated a formal inquiry into the treatment of Aleut Americans and persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II. A blue-ribbon panel was appointed, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. After months of review, the commission concluded that the United States had failed its citizens — violating their rights and betraying their trust.

The commission determined there was no military necessity or any other doctrine to justify the Aleuts' confinement. The government had, "as a matter of simple convenience, segregated the Aleuts, limited their personal freedoms and managed them as a herd of animals."

The commission concluded, "The removal of the Aleuts and Pribilof Islanders from their homes, with the destruction of their communities and churches, was ... an American tragedy."

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation author-izing symbolic monetary redress to survivors of the Aleut and Japanese-American incarcerations. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush issued the first monetary payment and an apology to Japanese Americans. The Aleuts have yet to receive an apology.

The Aleuts' story is a quintessential American story, with lessons of great consequence for our democratic culture. If the ideals of liberty and equal justice for all — pillars of our republic — are to remain strong, we must remember what the Aleuts learned so painfully six decades ago. On a windy hill overlooking the Aleutian village of Unalaska, this reminder is etched into stone: "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom."

Democracy is fragile and only by maintaining individual rights, even in times of stress, will this nation endure. Only a citizenry knowledgeable about its past, both glorious and tarnished, can prevent the recurrence of egregious mistakes.

Basic rights, as Aleut Americans learned during the war, can be easily lost. This is the true lesson from the past. It cannot be dismissed, and it must not be forgotten.

Marla Williams a former Seattle Times reporter, is the producer/writer of "Aleut Story," an upcoming public television documentary. Tetsuden Kashima is a professor in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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