Descendants of Alaska's westernmost island want permanent access to their ancestral home.
Since World War II, the Native people of Attu have been separated from their homeland.
In the 1700s, the Russians colonized the community during the fur trade. Two hundred years later, the Japanese military arrived and took the Attuans as prisoners of war to Japan, where half of them died in captivity. After that, it was the U.S. government that sealed off the island and forbade survivors from returning home.
That finally changed last summer, when 11 descendants received a special invitation to visit for the first time. But many, like Helena Schmitz, couldn't make the journey.
"I feel like if I were able to go, it would definitely help my soul," said Schmitz.
Now, Schmitz is asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to offer regular trips back to Attu, the homeland of her grandmother, Angelina Hodikoff.
She first made her request this spring at the 75th commemoration of the Battle of Attu.
"I want my children's children’s children to be able to go back to Attu with no cost to us," she said. "That's the justice that needs to be done on our people. The U.S. government, the Japanese government, and the Russian government took our culture away. And we need your help since [Fish and Wildlife] owns the island."
The agency oversees the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which cares for most of the island — although the Attu village site is still owned by the Aleut Corporation.
Top officials said Fish and Wildlife is open to the idea of descendants returning.
They hosted a conference call in late July to get the discussion going. Theresa Deal joined Schmitz in representing the Attu descendants.
"It should not be a once-in-a-lifetime trip," said Deal. "Would I want to go back again? Yes, I'd be thrilled to get to go back again."
Deal was part of the group that visited Attu last summer. Her mother, Marina Hodikoff, was born on the island, but Deal grew up disconnected from her culture in the Pacific Northwest.
After making the meaningful trip, Deal wants the same opportunity for her children.
"I would have liked to have had my sons there, because then we can all help process the emotions — and how neat it is to be up there, she said.
Deal would also like the trips to be open to spouses and significant others. They may not be Native themselves, but she said they're part of descendants' lives and provide an important support network as they deal with the trauma of displacement.
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Director Steve Delehanty said he's ready to listen to these requests. He's not Attuan, but he understands where they're coming from.
"We humans have these place connections that mean a lot, so it's totally understandable that it's coming from them," said Delehanty. "I also think it's quite understandable that they're reaching out to the Fish and Wildlife Service to say, 'Do you have any ideas for helping to make this happen?' Because we were able to do so in a small way last year."
While descendants made that trip aboard the research vessel Tiglax, there's also an airstrip on Attu, so it's possible to fly.
Still, at this point, Delehanty said descendants need to get more specific.
"Is it only the physical ability to walk on the island?" he asked. "Is it being on the village site itself? Is it more of a cultural connection? Or I don't know what."
Delehanty said involving more people may lead to creative solutions and funding. He's reaching out to other federal entities that have a stake — including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Coast Guard — and inviting them to join the conversation.
"We have to put on the table what the wish is, what the vision is, and then what the possibility is — and see if there's any overlap," he said.
For their part, Deal and Schmitz are looking into funding from private entities and the possibility of creating a trust for the program.
There's no set date for when anything will happen, but the group is planning to continue the conversation this fall.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated 11 descendants received “special permission” to visit Attu Island. The majority of the island is federally owned and administered by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, meaning land is open to recreational access. Other parts of Attu, however, are owned by separate entities that require permission to visit. The site of the former Attu village is owned by the Aleut Corporation, and the retired LORAN station at Massacre Bay is managed by the U.S. Coast Guard. KUCB has replaced the word “permission” with “invitation” to clarify that descendants did not need permission from USFWS to visit Attu.