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Unangan Culture

Unangan History

The word Aleutian and the name “Aleut” was given to the indigenous people of the Aleutian archipelago by the first Russian explorers after their visit to the Aleutian Islands. However, present-day Natives of Unalaska and most of the Aleutian Islands prefer to call themselves Unangan. As the indigenous Alaskan Native regional self-denomination of the Aleutian region, 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. The words Unangax̂, Unangan or Unanga, meaning "original people" can also be translated to "Seasider.”


Customs & Traditions


While the name Unangax̂  translates to “Seasider”, it is no wonder that the Unangan people in the past relied on resources from the sea to provide livelihood for the Unangan people then, as much as they still do today, for not only the Unangan, but also for many other residents of Unalaska.


The harsh climate and unforgiving topography of the islands created a Unangan culture both rich in art and oral tradition that lives today, and continues to grow and flourish in the present generation of Unangan people. Unangan language, dance, and medical plants are being brought back and used as they always were over thousands of years. The Unangan people are widely known for their ultra-fine basketry, sleek and efficient wood-frame iqyan (skin boats made of wood frames and marine mammal skin) and mastery in handling these skin boats at sea. The Unangan People are also well known for their excellence as marine mammal hunters, superior skin sewing and embroidery techniques, and beautiful, streamlined bentwood hats and visors.


Keeping Culture Alive Through Dance


In Unangan (Aleut) 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).


Keeping Culture Alive Through Camp Qungaayux


In order to preserve our culture and history, we gather together at our annual culture camp, 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 of this land.

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 also one of the mentors who has taught students the art of making traditional bentwood hats.


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.


Unangam Axaa (Aleut Dance)


Dancing, singing, and drumming are a huge part of the Unangan Culture, and something that is still alive and well today.


The Traditional regalia we wear while we dance are based off of designs that our ancestors wore on a daily basis. Today our regalia are made from leather, otter, seal, and rabbit furs, and beads. Our ancestors though used seal and otter furs, and skin & gut from marine mammals or birds. Sax is the Unangan word for our regalia, meaning bird, because that’s what they would have been made out of.


Some of the colors of the leather of the regailia had significant meaning. The rust red color that we use is based off of 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 are other items that we wear when we dance. Wearing anklets and bracelets was said to keep your spirit inside your own body, and bad spirits out of it.


Body & Facial Adornments


Today when we dance, the women draw tattoos on their faces and the men sometimes wear war paint.

Traditionally facial tattoos were worn by women. They are a sign of maturity and meant that she was now a woman, not a girl. Women would prick designs into their faces with needles made of seagull bones or any other small birds. Then soot from burnt wood would be mixed with urine and rubbed into the designs. Once the face would heal, the makeshift ink would leave the tattoos a black or blueish color. Tattoos run from the nose and go across the cheeks to the mid ear. And sometimes women later added chin tattoos that run from the middle of the lower lip to the bottom of the chin. Tattoos showed maturity, social status, family, and marital status. .

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. The women received their labrets 40 days after their first menstruation, and the 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. Labrets then were made of bone, ivory, or little stones. The size of the labret also was an indication to the status or importance of the wearer. The bigger the labret, the more important the person was. 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 part of the nose 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 also 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.


(Used “Tattooing and Piercing Among the Aleut” by Lars Krutak as one of my sources, most of it is from memory of what other Unangans older than myself have told me)