For 80-year-old Hilda Berikoff, the reparations she received this year for her evacuation and internment during World War II represented the end of one bureaucratic battle and the beginning of another.
Such payments should not be counted as income against public assistance, but because of bureaucratic and communication snags, they are costing Berikoff and some other elderly Aleuts their Medicaid coupons and old-age benefits.
Berikoff said she has received no aid for a couple of months. “I was getting it all the time before,” she said, “but then when they found out I had money in the bank, I think, I stopped getting it.”
At least three residents of this Aleutian Island village have had their assistance payments suspended or canceled by the state Division of Public Assistance, according to Marti Norton, who helps people correspond with the agency for a fee.
“A lot of these elderly people aren’t familiar with paperwork and they’re being required to provide more and more information,” Norton said. “One person even had his case closed.”
The number of Aleuts denied aid in smaller villages, where there are no fee agents, may be much higher.
after the Japanese bombed Unalaska in 1942, Aleuts on the Aleutian and Pribilof islands were evacuated on 24 hours’ notice. Berikoff said she still can close her eyes and hear bombs dropping and feel the fear and panic.
The Aleuts were taken to camps in Southeast Alaska. For 2 1/2 years, the Berikoffs lived in a defunct cannery and bunkhouse on Burnett Island. Four families shared one room with one large table; they slept on the table or on the floor. Berikoff stuffed blankets under the doors to keep out the cold.
“They said they’d have everything for us ready in Southeast, and when we got there there was nothing,” she said. “I had two little kids, so it was pretty hard on me.”
Many Aleuts returned after the war to find their homes and belongings missing or destroyed. The Russian Orthodox church had been vandalized. For years, they sought reparations; Berikoff was one of those who lobbied Congress.
In 1988, Congress approved payments of $12,000 a person, to be distributed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Berikoff has arthritis. Without Medicaid coupons and $136 in old-age benefits each month, she has little money left after paying bills, she said. She spent most of her reparations money fixing up her house.
“I wouldn’t be able to go to the clinic unless they pay,” she said.
In Berikoff’s case, the division sent a letter saying it would close her file unless she provided a copy of her bank statement, proof that she received reparations and an accounting of what she did with the money, Norton said.
“I’m really offended that they would burden an 80-year-old lady with all of this,” said Norton. “This payment was supposed to make up for wrongs. It was supposed to make their lives a little easier.”
Of some 550 Aleuts eligible for reparations, all but about 130 had received checks by May, said Dimitri Philemonof, executive director of the nonprofit Native corporation Aleutian-Pribilof Islands Assn. The others, he said, will be paid by year’s end.
The money should not affect eligibility for aid because reparations are not considered income and are not taxable.
State welfare workers were told this, but some were confused. In at least one case, benefits to an Aleut were cut off without proper notice, said Curtis Lomas, a program officer in Juneau.
Social workers will receive new instructions explaining the rules, he said.
The state must ascertain sure that the $12,000 payments were reparations, Lomas said. If the division doesn’t get the right documents, it sends letters giving clients 10 to 15 days to respond.
“If (documentation) is not provided after a reasonable period of time, we have no choice but to close the case,” he said. “There are people who just don’t respond.”
Norton said that some older Aleuts don’t always open their mail immediately.
“Many of them are intimidated. When you get a big, fat envelope in the mail,” she said, “a lot of them would put it on a dresser for a while and look at it, because they were sure it was bad news. Then they’d bring it to me, and a lot of times it was too late.”
State aid forms are dense and hard to read, even for people whose first language is English, Norton said. Many elderly Aleuts speak little or no English.
Lomas said that welfare officials “do the best we can. We don’t have the capability of issuing notices in Aleut.”
Reparations have created other problems. “I think there are some carpetbaggers out there,” ready to pounce on people with new wealth, Philemonof said. “All of a sudden, you’ve got friends.”
Norton told of one man who bought a gold-nugget watch and ring and drank away the rest of his settlement within a month. Then he had to sell the jewelry.
One of the biggest problems, Philemonof said, has been cashing the checks in small villages. “There’s not enough revenue there, and they were more or less forced to come into Anchorage,” he said.