After a decade of collecting footage and interviews, KUCB will premiere its new documentary on June 13.
The film is called "Tanadgusim Adan Chiilulix: Revisiting the Lost Villages of the Aleutian Islands." It's about a project that brought Unangax̂ survivors of World War II back to the communities they were forced to leave during the war — and then never allowed to resettle.
KUCB's Laura Kraegel sat down with fellow reporter Zoë Sobel to learn more about the documentary inspired by the Lost Villages Project.
ZOË SOBEL: The Lost Villages Project started way before either of our times here at KUCB. It originated out of a project that [historian] Ray Hudson and Rachel Mason [of the National Park Service] were involved in. Ray was going around and collecting oral histories of elders who had lived in different villages.
Patty Gregory came along and said, "My dad has really been talking about how he wants to go back to Makushin. Is there any way we can bring people who lived in these villages, were forcibly taken from their homes by the U.S. government, and not given any support to go back — is there some way we can take them back and they can go see these places again?"
That question sparked a project that went on to visit the four lost villages — villages that don't exist anymore because of the events of World War II — and take people who survived the war and grew up in these villages, as well as some of their descendants, to see these places again or for the first time.
LAURA KRAEGEL: Over the last 10 years, quite a few of those people have gone on these trips and spent time in Makushin and Kashega and Biorka and Attu — places that are difficult to get to and that have tremendous significance. Zoë, you had the chance to follow along on the last of the trips — the one to Attu in 2017. What was it like on the island? What did everybody do when they finally got to this place that's really their homeland?
SOBEL: We were very lucky and we had amazing weather, which was great because one of the big emphases for all of the trips was having a ceremony and a memorial where a Russian Orthodox cross is planted at site of the old church. So we were able to have that and honor the village and the people who were from there.
And then, a big emphasis was on collecting grass to be able to bring it back for traditional basket weavers. Attuan baskets were thought of as some of the finest baskets of the Aleutians, and part of that was because of the grass. So everybody chipped in and gathered bundles and bundles of grass. That was a big way that a lot of people spent their time, and it's paid forward. I think there have been at least two baskets woven with that grass.
KRAEGEL: You were there to witness as people connected with this place that they're from — interviewing them, filming the ceremony at the church site, and trying to record this rare and emotional experience. When did that turn into "Let's make a documentary"?
SOBEL: There had been members of KUCB on every single one of these trips. And when we go on the trip, we're taking a spot away from a descendant or a survivor. So I think there’s a really big responsibility — more so than other [reporting] trips — in that you want to gather as much as possible. Because you're responsible for recording that and bringing it back for people who couldn't go. Maybe people who aren't born yet. People who are never going to get the chance to go.
So all along, there had been a lot gathered. And I think that once every village had been visited, taking some of this footage that we had and that isn't totally accessible to people and putting it out there was of a big importance. But one of the things holding us back was funding. We were able put together a grant [application] at the station, with [KUCB General Manager] Lauren Adams and [KUCB Arts and Culture Producer] Chrissy Roes as well.
We got a bunch of money from the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Ounalashka Corporation, the Aleut Corporation, the City of Unalaska, and the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association. With that money, it gave us more resources so that I could be taken off of my normal job doing radio and we could have an outside editor, who helped us throughout the process. Just make it so that we could move people around so we could get this project done.
KRAEGEL: Now that it is done, after so many years, what can folks expect to see in the final product?
SOBEL: I think people in Unalaska are going to see a lot of familiar faces. Patty Gregory is the person who made that first initial ask to Rachel Mason. She wanted to know: "Is it possible to go back? My dad wants to go back." So you're going to see Patty. You'll see her dad, Nick Lekanoff Sr. Our narrator is Laresa Syverson. You'll also see people from elsewhere in the Aleutians. We have the mayor of Atka, Crystal Dushkin. She’s an Attu descendant, and she was on the trip with me. We're also going to see Ray Hudson, who is a much beloved former teacher here. Also some people who actually lived in the villages: Eva Tcheripanoff, who was a Kashega resident, and George Gordaoff, also from Kashega.
There are so many people, it's really hard to name them all. But people are going to be able to go see what these villages looked like. They're going to be able to hear from people who grew up in the villages. They're going to be able to hear from descendants about what going on these trips meant to them — and what it's meant for their lives, their hopes for their kids. I think it's just another window, getting into some of the history of the Aleutians and Unalaska and the Unangax̂ people.
"Tanadgusim Adan Chiilulix: Revisiting the Lost Villages of the Aleutian Islands" will premiere Thursday, June 13 at the Grand Aleutian Hotel in Unalaska. The free screening starts with a reception at 6 p.m., and everyone in the community is invited to attend.
This project is supported in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.