Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska

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Unangan Culture

Learn more about the Unangan origins, history, culture, customs, and present day practices below. 

Unangan History

The word Aleutian and the name “Aleut” was given to the indigenous people of the Aleutian archipelago by the first Russian explorers to visit 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 Unangas can be translated to "Sea sider."

Qawalangin

The word Qawalangin can be translated to “Fox Islanders.” Our Tribe today consists of Unangan people and descendants of the original inhabitants of the villages: Biorka, Makushin, and Kashega on Unalaska, Sedanka, and Amaknak Islands in the Aleutian Chain of Alaska.

A Woman of Oonalashka

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 their people then as much as they still do today for not only the Unangan people, but also for many other residents of Unalaska.

 

The harsh climate and unforgiving topography of the islands created an 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. Language, Unangan dance, and medical plants are being brought back and used as they always were over thousands of years. The Unangan People are most widely known for ultra-fine basketry, sleek and efficient wood-frame iqyax^ (one hatched 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. (The sax pictured above is from Atka Island and made from puffin. It was donated to the Museum of Cultures in 1846 )

Keeping Our Culture Alive Through Dance

In Unangan Culture, like many other cultures, our stories were passed down through the spoken word and told through songs and dance. Some of the stories we tell 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 Qalngaagin (the Raven Dance, created in Unalaska by Laresa Syverson).

Keeping Our Culture Alive Through Camp Qungaayux^

By preserving 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 to young Unalaskans, both Unangan and non- Unangan, to learn more about the culture of this land.


Amongst some of the forerunners of our culture camp were Emil Berikoff and Harriet Berikoff who have brought to life this program. Others who helped develop, and continue teachings of the Unangan culture were: Moses Dirks, Sharon Svarny-Livingston, Vince Tutiakoff, Laresa Syverson, Jerah Chadwick, and Okelena Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory.  We would also like to recognize our elders without whom there would be no Camp Qungaayux^: Mary Bourdokofsky, Gertrude Svarny, Walter Dyakanoff, and Moses Gordaief to name a few.

 

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 Hat making,  Unangam Tunuu (Aleut Language), Weaving, Skin & Gut Sewing, Traditional Foods, Salmon preparation, and the harvesting of
an  Isux^ (hair seal) or Qawax^ (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 Traditional Way of Life.

Unalaska Tribe, Unangan, Aleut people, Bering Sea Island, Aleutian Chain, Indigenous, Alaskan Native, Culture, Aleutian Islands, Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska