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Photos: Life on Alaska's St. George Island

With 35 square miles of land, St. George is the southernmost of Alaska's Pribiloff Islands. Here, flapping wings, gusting winds, and a crescendo of roaring barks fill the air. Nearly 2.5 million nesting seabirds and 1 million breeding fur seals come to the island every year.

St. George's some 100 residents are descendants of laborers who worked in the commercialized fur-seal trade, relatives of ancestors who suffered centuries of exploitation and injustices.

In the late 1700s, Russians enslaved Aleut hunters from Russia and mainland Alaska to work the seal's breeding grounds. After America purchased Alaska in 1867, the U.S. government continued the practice. In exchange for labor, the Aleuts were given food, housing and medical care, but they were barred from owning their own homes until 1966. They were civil servants living in a company town built around the lucrative fur trade.

But the Aleut people saw little, if any, of the profits -- money that could have funded the United States' $7.2 million purchase price for Alaska many times over.

In the early era of contact with the Russians, sickness wiped out nearly 80 percent of the Aleuts. Then, during World War II, Alaska Natives on St. George were evacuated to the mainland, forced to live for more than two years in an abandoned cannery and mining camp. At the camp, sickness and hunger again invaded their lives.

Around 1912, the fur seals in the Pribilofs suffered a huge population decline, dropping from millions to just 216,000 animals. Conservation efforts turned around the decline. But for reasons not known, the population has again begun to drop -- about 6 percent a year over the last decade to more than 800,000 today. Speculation on causes includes competition for food with Bering Sea fisherman, increased predation by bigger marine mammals, or disruptions from ships in the harbor. No one knows for sure.

The U.S. government eventually paid the Pribilof Aleuts $8.5 million for wrongs spanning several generations. In 1983, when the U.S. ended the commercial harvest of seals and abandoned the islands, it gave St. George $8 million to rebuild an economy no longer centered on the controversial seal harvest.

It was a difficult transition.

By Jill Burke | Alaska Dispatch

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