THE ALEUT CORPORATION: Reclaiming Our Heritage: Cultural and Language Revitalization among the Unangax̂ People

For Crystal Dushkin, one of the most significant and memorable cultural moments of the last several years was the 2013 launch of an iqyax, a traditional Unangax̂ kayak, at the conclusion of the first Atka Culture Camp, Niigugim Tanasxaa. The construction of this iqyax began in 1996 along with a few others, but this one was never completed. Seventeen years later, participants in that first camp were able to take part in completing the frame, sewing on the skin, and launching the watercraft in celebration of thousands of years of heritage and history that continue to be passed down through generations.

“The launch was great,” she recalls. “I was glad our kids had that opportunity to work on a frame; to see and participate firsthand in something that was a continuation of what our ancestors had done before.”

Cultural reclamation and revitalization projects within Alaska’s indigenous communities are not new. But particularly in recent years, as elders and indigenous language speakers have aged and passed away, there has been a renewed focus on developing, funding, and maintaining programs that allow Alaska Native people to access the language, culture, and heritage of their ancestors, and continue to pass that knowledge on.

For The Aleut Corporation (TAC), that has meant investing in and supporting a variety of programs both in the ancestral home region of the Unangax̂ people, as well as in other areas where shareholders and descendants now reside. Culture camps and language preservation have been chief among those investments and the efforts of those programs are continuing to produce results.

“Culture” and “language” are more than words which describe heritage and oral communication. For many, reclamation and revitalization has led to a sense of place, grounding, and connection that had been missing for years.

“When I am practicing my culture, speaking my language, creating my regalia, and seeing our dance troupe dancing our dances, it fills this big empty void I had in me,” Becky Bendixen said. Bendixen is originally from King Cove and upon relocating to Bellingham, Washington has been an active driver and contributor to the development of the culture camp in the Pacific Northwest.

“I couldn’t believe how empty I was until I had that space filled with my ancestors’ ways of life. It made me whole.”

The modern-day efforts of cultural and language reclamation and revitalization can actually trace their roots back to the 1800s. In 1824, Russian Orthodox linguist Ivan Veniaminov worked with Unangax̂ speakers to develop a writing system so that religious texts and sermons could be translated into Unangam Tunuu. The writings and documentation from that time have been incredibly helpful for people like Moses Dirks, one of the last fluent speakers of the western dialect of the language, who often looks to the work of that time to help with modern translation and language development.

Revitalizing Culture

Unangax̂ culture camps themselves began to spring up in earnest in the 1990s, thanks to the efforts of people like Dirks, Aquilina Lestenkof, and elders who were a part of the Association of Unangan/Unangas Educators.

“The first culture camp in the region was in Unalaska,” said Millie McKeown, Cultural Heritage Director at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA). “Mr. Dirks was a big part of that. Following that, the second one was in Sand Point in 2001.”

Today, culture camps are held in Atka, Akutan, King Cove, Sand Point, Unalaska, and Anchorage, as well as in the Pacific Northwest of the Lower 48. While specific activities and locations vary, the overarching theme remains connecting Unangax̂ people to their culture.

At the Urban Unangax̂ Culture Camp in Anchorage, McKeown says APIA followed the model and structure of the 2001 Sand Point Camp because it worked well for the more urban setting.

“We have activities such as drum-making, building full-size and model iqyax, dance, traditional foods, painting, and regalia sewing,” she said. “The camp is held in APIA’s Anchorage central headquarters and is able to accommodate gatherings like this for a large group of Unangax̂ people. In 2008, we had about 75 people at the first camp, and within just a few years, we were having well over 200 people of all ages at the camp.”

In Atka, the camp is held outside the community at an actual campsite to create a clear connection with and experience similar to that of traditional Unangax̂ summer camps. “I wanted our camp to have that connection and focus on our tradition,” Crystal Dushkin said in describing the camp. “The bulk of our meals are traditional foods we gather at low tide or hunt. It was really important to me and our elders that our camp be an actual camping experience.”

Atka and Akutan currently share a culture camp, and alternate locations every other year (most culture camps have been placed on hold since March 2020 due to COVID-19). Josephine Shangin helped found the original Akutan camp, Camp Qigiiĝun, after relocating to the region. She draws on her experience from working at APIA as well as teaching and participating in other camps.

“Hunting and fishing had to be included in our culture camp for sure,” Shangin said as she described the activities she wanted to ensure were a part of Akutan’s first camp in 2012. “A lot of times, you just go to the store, but learning the traditional ways of food gathering and the process behind them is a vital part of who we are and can also help overcome food insecurity.”

Becky Bendixen recalls watching videos of the Atxam Taligisniikangis Atka dance troupe and wishing that kind of dance and culture were present in the Pacific Northwest. “I lamented to my daughter about it, and she said, ‘You do it, mom; you can bring it here yourself.’”

She reached out to the Atxam Taligisniikangis, secured financial support from TAC, and worked with the Northwest Indian College to secure space to host a 10-day culture camp led in part by the dance troupe in 2005. It was a phenomenal success.

“I think without the Atka dance troupe, we would still be living in the non-Unangax̂ culture we were living in before,” she said. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to us and I’m so grateful they shared all of it with us.”

Revitalizing Language

These cultural reclamation and revitalization efforts have also dovetailed with projects aiming to do the same for Unangam Tunuu, the language of the Unangax̂ people. Aquilina Lestenkof, Co-director of the Ecosystem Conservation Office of the Tribal Government of St. Paul Island, said that past experiences with Unangam Tunuu speakers who have since passed on encouraged her to continue language reclamation projects.

“Early on in my life, my dad sort of impressed upon me that I would have some mission in life to help maintain our local culture,” she said. “At one point, I had an opportunity to record him telling stories in English, and he dropped hints that there was so much more nuance and depth of meaning in Unangam Tunuu.”

Initially, she jumped into the process of learning and reclaiming the language without any pedagogical tools, relying on research and mentorship from other Unangam Tunuu speakers. After a mentor passed away, it became clear to Lestenkof that she needed to dedicate as much of her time as possible to keeping the language alive.

After a survey by the Tribal Government of St. Paul showed community members were most concerned about language preservation, Lestenkof took a look at the “Where Are Your Keys?” method of teaching language. It focused on interactive, repeated questions and answers to help facilitate language learning.

“What I liked about it was that it’s about building teachers,” she said in describing the teaching method. “It hasn’t always been easy, but the techniques have brought us closer together as a community while also helping us keep the language alive.”

Additionally, efforts to record, translate, and transcribe old recordings of stories and oral histories has also had success. Moses Dirks was fortunate enough to work with Dr. Knut Bergsland in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s to design and develop bilingual curriculum materials and school dictionaries for both Unangam Tunuu dialects and produce a comprehensive Unangax̂ dictionary. He credits mentors like Dr. Bergsland, as well as his father and grandfather, for instilling in him the passion for preservation.

One of Dirks’ passions today is to listen to old recordings then transcribe and translate what the storytellers of old were trying to pass on. “It is important to preserve the culture and traditions,” he said. “I’m glad we’re starting to realize that learning and speaking our language is an important part of who we are.”

“Everything is Teamwork”

In their own right, each of these individuals have contributed immensely to the revitalization and reclamation of Unangax̂ culture. But all of them also emphasized that their individual accomplishments are only possible because of support systems, elders, mentors, and their communities.

“Everything is teamwork,” Dirks said in reflection. “You work with specialists; you work with other experts, and you build on the work of those before you like I was able to as I looked at the results of Ivan Veniaminov’s work.”

“Anything I’ve done, I don’t think I’ve done on my own,” Aquilina Lestenkof said. “It’s always been in me because of past generations.”

As language revitalization and culture camps have grown and expanded, so too have other aspects of traditional knowledge, like dances, carvings, and traditional hunting methods.

TAC’s annual contributions in support of these efforts are an important part of the Corporation’s legacy. As 50 years of ANCSA are marked later this year, those contributions and investments will continue. Together, it all serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness and impact of a culture that has endured for thousands of years.

“After that first camp in 2012, the whole community came together so the kids could showcase what they’d learned,” Akutan’s Josephine Shangin said. “They danced and performed the songs they’d learned. Afterward, this one particular elder, who just recently passed away, said he thought he would never see that in our community. Around World War II, we really started seeing aspects of our culture falling asleep. And this elder was so emotional, and so grateful to see the children taking pride in their culture, heritage, and traditions so many years after seeing it fall away.”

“I never would have thought that this would be happening, and I’m so glad it is,” Becky Bendixen said retrospectively. “And to see it expanding as much as it is in Alaska as well as in the Pacific Northwest, it makes me feel a gratitude that is beyond gratitude. Even if all of the language, ceremony, dance, and spirituality were taken away from us, it was not actually taken away; it was sitting inside of us. And for our people to feel that feeling of completion and empowerment that connection to culture brings is just amazing and wonderful beyond words.”

Learn more about The Aleut Corporation on its website.