Unangan Culture

Unangan History
Al • eut

The word Aleutian and the name “Aleut” was given to the native people by the first Russian explorers after their visit to the Aleutian Islands. Present-day Natives of Unalaska and most Aleutian Islanders prefer to identify as Unangan, or  the people of the passes.

• nang • an

In the dialect of the eastern Aleutian Islands, the self-given term for this group of Native peoples is Unangan; in the western dialect, Unangas. Collectively, Unangax̂ is the proper term for the Native people of the Aleutian region. The words Unangax̂, Ungangan, or Unanga, meaning "original people" can also be translated to "seasiders." This group of hunters, whalers, and fishers are the original inhabitants of the Aleutian Island Chain,  predating the Russian settlement of the region by thousands of years.

 
Customs & Traditions

The Unangan people heavily relied on the resources provided by the sea. Men hunted seal, otter, sea lion, whale, and occasionally walrus using iqyax (skin wrapped kayak) while women gathered resources on land. Women gathered berries, birds, mollusks, wild plants, and grass for basket weaving. Due to the limits that seasons pose on their resources, they have utilized their creativity  to become highly knowledgable on the art of preservation and resourcefulness. Everything they gathered was put to use in some way, leaving little room for waste.

Baskets intricately woven by Aleut women.

The intelligence of Unangan people is both  profoundly functional and beautiful, showcasing their respect for the land through the gratitude of creativity.  From clothing to instruments, adornments, tools, and homes, the Unangan are among the most masterful in living harmoniously with the environment, considering the unforgiving topography. Their value, "manachin ilam axtalakan agliisaachin," meaning "don't do anything to excess," is evident in the way their actions leave very little traces in the environment.

 
Body and Facial Adornments

Traditionally facial tattoos were worn by women as a sign of maturity, symbolizing the transition from girl to woman. Women pricked designs into their faces with needles made of seagull bones or other small birds. Then, soot from burnt wood were mixed with urine and rubbed into the designs. Once the face healed, the makeshift ink left a black or blueish color. These tattoos run from the nose, across the cheeks, and to the mid ear. Sometimes women later added chin tattoos that run from the middle of the lower lip to the bottom of the chin. These tattoos further symbolized the level maturity, social status, family, and marital status. .

Example of ivory labrets.

Labrets are an adornment worn by both men and women. They are a piercing in the middle of the lower lip. Labrets are also a sign of maturity and signify that the wearer is no longer a child. Women received their labrets 40 days after their first menstruation, and men received theirs at around ages 8 or 9. This is when the boys were sent away to live with their maternal uncles to be raised and make the transition from boyhood to manhood. These labrets were made of bone, ivory, or little stones wherein its size indicated to the status or importance of the wearer; the larger the labret, the more important the person. To this day, many Unangas still get their labrets when they are of the proper age.

Nose pins were also used by both men and women. The septum was pierced and decorated with feather spines, whiskers, bark, ivory, or other items were threaded through the piercing. Women often showed their status by threading beads onto a thong and letting the beads hang to the bottom of their chin.

Ear adornments were worn by our Unangan Ancestors. The line of the entire outer rim of the ear was pierced and the holes were adorned with feathers, shells, whiskers, bone, ivory, beads, or even amber.

 
Keeping the Culture Alive
Preservation through Dance

In Unangan Culture, like many other cultures, stories were passed down through the spoken word, and told through song and dance. Since the Qawlangin Tribe of Unalaska’s first culture camp, Laresa Syverson, Delores Gregory, Alicia LaPlant, and Ariel Gustafson have all helped carry on teaching the tradition of Unangam Axaa (Aleut Dance.) Some of the stories told through dance are: Chagix (the Halibut Dance, created in Atka), Slax (the Weather Dance, created by Crystal (Swetzof) Dushkin of Atka and Laresa Syverson of Unalaska), Kanuygaatux (the Sea Otter Hunter Dance, from Unalaska), and Qawalamgin (the Raven Dance, created in Unalaska by Laresa Syverson).

Unangam Axaa (Aleut Dance)

Dancing, singing, and drumming are integral parts of the Unangan Culture and is practiced to this day. Traditional regalia, known as "Sax," were  worn while dancing are based off of designs that ancestors wore on a daily basis, which included seal and otter furs, as well as gut from marine mammals or birds. Today regalia are made from leather, otter, seal, and rabbit furs, and beads.  Some of the colors of the leather regalia had significant meaning. Rust red color tells a story of a wounded hunter. To heal his wounds, he pressed them against the earth and his blood changed the color of the mud. Anklets and bracelets were also worn during dances. Wearing anklets and bracelets was said to keep your spirit inside your own body, and bad spirits out of it.

Preservation through Camp Qungaayux

Since its inception in August of 1997, Camp Qungaayux has provided young Unalaskans, both Unangan and not Ungangan, an opportunity to learn more about the culture. Amongst some of the founders of our culture camp are Moses Dirks and Crystal (Swetzof) Dushkin from our neighboring Aleutian Island of Atka. Others who led and helped develop and continue teaching the Unangan culture were Emil Berikoff, Vince Tutiakoff, Laresa Syverson, Delores Gregory, Alicia LaPlant, and Ariel Gustafson, and Jerah Chadwick. Okelena Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory is one of the mentors who taught students the art of making traditional bentwood hats.

Aleutian bentwood hat.

Of all the different skills/classes that have been taught or demonstrated at Camp Qungaayux, the core classes taught every year are: Unangam Axaa (Aleut Dance), Bentwood Hatmaking,  Unangam Tunuu (Aleut Language), Weaving, Skin & Gut Sewing Unangan Cooking Class: salmon preparation and the harvesting of an Isux (hair seal) or Qawa (sea lion).

 

As the times change and Camp Qungaayux continues to grow, the purpose of the camp remains the same: to preserve the Unangan Culture and the traditional way of life.

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Unalaska, AK 99685
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