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Southwestern Region

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The Aleutians are said to have the worst weather in the world. Measurable precipitation falls more than two hundred days per year. Although the range of temperatures is narrow and fairly temperate, storm winds occur in all months. The days are generally cloudy, wet, and windy.

Southwestern Alaska includes the Alaska Peninsula, the Aleutian Chain, the Pribilof Islands, the Shumagin Islands, and the Kodiak Archipelago. The Aleutian Chain extends in an arc 1,100 miles long, with over one hundred islands in an active seismic zone. The Alaska Peninsula runs northeast from the Aleutians about 500 miles to Naknek Lake. Three hundred miles west of the peninsula is the small grouping of the Pribilof Islands, while on the east and south sides are the Kodiak Archipelago and Shumagin Islands. Most of the region is treeless; only the northern parts of the Kodiak islands and the Alaska Peninsula are forested.

Southwestern Alaska was the first area settled by the Russians, who were well established here by the end of the eighteenth century. The Aleutian Chain had been long inhabited by the Aleuts, and the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island by Pacific Eskimos, who strongly identify with the Aleuts. Russian domination of these peoples was cruel but effective, and the Russians used Aleut labor to establish a colony and to deplete the waters of the valuable sea otter.

After the United States bought Alaska in 1867, the Alaska Commercial Company followed in the footsteps of the Russian-American Company, operating the fur trade in a virtual monopoly. By the turn of the twentieth century this domination had ended, as had the prominence of the fur trade, when commercial fisheries took over. Southwestern Alaska received renewed attention from the United States during World War II, when the westernmost islands were the only part of U.S. territory occupied by the enemy. A military presence still exists due to the strategic location of the region.

Although no traditional Native dwellings are known to survive, one Russian-era building exists, the Russian-American Company Magazinin Kodiak. The synthesis of Russian and Aleut cultures is best seen in the number of Russian Orthodox churches that populate the landscape today. Generally the most conspicuous and architecturally elaborate building in any village, the churches exhibit the traditional three-part form, with sanctuary, nave, and bell tower (or often just a vestibule) delineated on the exterior. None dates from the period of Russian occupancy; the Natives adopted Russian Orthodoxy and continued its traditional architecture when building new churches. Domestic architecture is generally undistinguished, consisting of small houses of found materials that are steadily being replaced by manufactured housing. There are few roads in this part of the state, and building materials and household goods must be shipped or flown in. Settlements are scattered and oriented to the sea.

Writing Credits

Alison K. Hoagland

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