Seventy-five years after supervising the Unangan internment during World War II, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finally apologized to the people of St. George Island.
Federal officials visited the island last month to make amends in person.
Before a small crowd at the St. George community center, Wes Kuhns says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is ready to take responsibility for its actions.
“I’m here to deliver a long overdue apology for the tragedies that befell the Aleut people on our watch," says Kuhns, acting captain of a USFWS research vessel.
In 1942, the agency removed St. George Islanders from their homes and sent them to internment camps, following the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor. Almost 50 of them died from sickness and starvation.
“To the Aleut people interned at Funter Bay and their descendants, who continue to carry this burden, I am sorry," says Kuhns.
Here to receive the apology is Anthony Merculief, a 78-year-old survivor.
Merculief was sent to Funter Bay as a toddler, so he doesn’t remember details from the three-year internment. But the experience has stayed with him.
“It has an effect on you when you’re treated the way we were treated," he says. "It never wears off.”
Still, Merculief says he accepts the apology. To him, the most important thing is to continue healing and keep this history alive.
“The suffering we went through, how many people died because of the poor conditions … hopefully, it’ll never be repeated," he says.
That’s why Merculief is glad his grandniece is at the apology ceremony.
Leah Lekanof, 15, says the commemoration has motivated her to learn more about what her people endured.
“When I get home, I'm going to ask my grandma about it more and my uncle," she says.
For now, though, Lekanof says she’s happy to watch her Great Uncle Anthony as he receives an official letter of apology.
“I saw him smile so hard, in a way I haven’t seen in a long time," she says. "I was just so happy to him smile."