Biorka, Sedanka Island

Biorka, Sedanka Island

by | Oct 7, 2021

Biorka is an abandoned Aleut Unangan village on the northwest coast of Sedanka Island in the Fox Islands of the Eastern Aleutians, situated between Udamat Bay and Sisek Cove, about 27 miles (44 km) southwest of Akutan and 14 miles (23 km) east-southeast of Unalaska, Alaska. Sedanka Island is an extension of the southeastern arm of Unalaska Island that forms the southern shore of Beaver Inlet. Sedanka and Unalaska are separated by narrow Udagak Strait. Like many Aleut places, Biorka had probably existed for thousands of years. Biorka was called Qakilu by the Unangan and originally was situated about 3 miles (5 km) to the northeast. Aleut permanent settlements were usually located on spits in sheltered bays where skin boats could safely land, and importantly, the location provided alternative escape routes by sea if the settlement were attacked. A freshwater stream, a refuge rock, salmon streams, beaches where driftwood was cast ashore, and access to technologically important stones and minerals were essential. Biorka consisted of several semisubterranean longhouses or barabaras with roof entrances that could shelter over a hundred people. Most residents lived by fishing and otter hunting, though the relative proximity to Unalaska made it possible for men to go there and work as needed. In the 20th century, the village moved further inside Beaver Inlet to a cove named Sidaanan, which is from the Unangan word for graphite. The Unangan added graphite to their pigments to give the resulting paint on gut raincoats and other items a glistening appearance. In 1790, Martin Sauer recorded the Aleut name for the village as “Sidankin”, and in 1826 Lieutenant Gavril Sarychev of the Imperial Russian Navy published a chart with “Sedanka Village”. In 1888, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries recorded “Burka,” which was published on charts as “Biorka,” from the Norwegian “Birch Island”.

Unangan life focused almost exclusively on the sea as the source of most food and resources, and their subsistence economy was based on sharing within a large family sphere. Food items consisted principally of marine mammals such as sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, fur seals, and whales. Other foods included marine invertebrates, eggs, birds, and fish. Plant foods such as crowberries, wild rice, and wild celery provided only a small percentage of their diet. Marine mammal and bird hunting on the open ocean was done from kayak-style baidarkas by men hurling harpoons and spears at their prey with the aid of an atlatl or throwing board. According to Aleut traditions and observations by the early Russian seafarers in the second half of the eighteenth century, internecine wars were practically a permanent feature among Aleuts. The reason for killing and plundering almost always was for capturing females or subsistence resources such as pigments, wood, stones, and later metal. In 1741, Alaska was claimed as a territory by the first Russian naval expedition during the Second Kamchatka Expedition under the overall command of Vitus Bering. Beginning about 1745, Russian entrepreneurs advanced steadily eastward up the Aleutian Island chain, and by 1758, but possibly a decade earlier, they had arrived in the eastern Aleutians. In 1799, Emperor Paul I granted a fur trading monopoly to the Russian-American Company, thus eliminating competition among smaller companies and individual ship captains. In the eastern Aleutians, the impressment of Unangan men became the rule, and the old, the young, and the women remained in the villages and suffered privation. By the early 1800s, the Aleuts had lost control of their own lives. Their precontact adaptive strategies were simply not adequate for dealing with the kind and magnitude of change that occurred in the early Russian period. The population size decreased by 70-85 percent in only fifty years. This loss occurred from the combined effects of Russian-Aleut conflicts, Russian atrocities, introduced diseases, and accidental deaths. As a result, villages became fewer in number as the populations consolidated. Orthodox Christianity was introduced to the Aleuts at first by laymen, and in 1824 the first priest, Ioann Veniaminov was appointed to the Aleutians. In 1855, Saint Nicholas Chapel was consecrated in Biorka and functioned as a satellite of the Holy Ascension Church in Unalaska. With Orthodox Christianity came literacy and by the end of the Russian period following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, most Aleut men were literate in their own language and many also in Russian.

The Japanese began commercial crab fishing in Alaskan waters during the 1880s and there had been occasional historical contact with the Unangan in the Aleutian Islands. In 1940, the U.S. government began considering the fortification of Alaska, and the military started construction of Fort Mears on Amaknak Island within Unalaska Bay. In June 1942, the Japanese bombed Fort Mears, the village of Unalaska, and Dutch Harbor. They also occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Western Aleutians, taking the civilian population of Attu to Japan to be held as prisoners. For this reason, the U.S. government evacuated nine Aleutian villages including Biorka. Although the evacuation took place nearly a month after the attacks, no warning was given to the people living there, and many left without a chance to collect clothes or possessions or to do anything to secure their homes. Saint Nicholas Chapel was boarded up before the town was abandoned. The people from Biorka were sent to Ward Cove near Ketchikan and housed at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. The Unangan lost nearly one-third of their population to epidemic diseases, mostly the old and the very young. In 1945, residents of Biorka were brought back to the Aleutians, and some families attempted to return to their former village life. On March 10, 1952, a major storm damaged or destroyed the village, including the church, and most of the population moved to Unalaska. In the mid-1960s, the church building was dismantled and burned, and a small structure was built to protect the area of consecrated ground where the altar had been. Read more here and here. Explore more of Biorka and Sedanka Island here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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