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Unangam Tunuu

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN ALEUT

by
Barbara
Švarný Carlson

Qawalangi{ originally from Iluula{, Unalaska

We call ourselves Unangan or Unangas (Atkan dialect). This is our autonym, our name for ourselves, the group identity for the indigenous peoples of the Aleutian Archipelago (including nine distinct subgroups) prior to contact with Europeans.

When Russian explorers came to our land, charting and mapping the area for their czar, the first island group that they came upon were the people who called themselves, Sasignan. For unclear reasons the Russians called them Aleut. They lived in what the Russians named the Near Islands, because of their proximity to Russia at the western end of the Aleutian Islands. As they moved eastward on their journeys, the Russians continued to call the people Aleut, even as they crossed a major dividing line of language and culture, encountering the Sugpiaq (many of whom now call themselves Alutiiq) Sugcestun-speaking people of the Alaska Peninsula.

The Russian language became the common acculturation denominator among these diverse groups. What is my point? We "Aleuts" are actually three different maritime peoples who had our own identities and subdivisions prior to our contact with the Russians: The Alutiiq speakers, the Central Yupik speakers of Bristol Bay, and the Unangam Tunuu (language of the Unanga{) speakers. Why should we hang onto that foreign name, "Aleut?" To show the pride we have in our cultural heritage and reclaim and maintain our identities as a distinct people we should revive the original words we used to describe ourselves.

Our Unangam identities have become so tenuous that we, as a people, are excavating, sifting, and meticulously labeling the artifacts of various segments of our society with increasing fervor. If we do not, they may disappear forever, or be claimed by another group as their own, muddying our uniqueness and diffusing our very identity. So there is inherent in this work that element of reclamation that is necessarily a part of any revitalization of an indigenous culture.

It is not just material objects that make up our heritage. The endangered Unangam Tunnu, the Unanga{ language, with its extant dialects is a virtually untapped resource concerning the clues it can provide to found objects, an understanding the profound relationship with land and sea, rules to live by, history, and perhaps most importantly, a unique view of the world to be shared and appreciated. Unangam folklore is a vital aspect of this contribution to the world bank of knowledge. It is like a gigantic puzzle in which museum artifacts fill another missing gap.

Common among Alaska Natives, people who were either raised away from our home villages, or who had to leave at some point during our lives, and had to remain away for some length of time, displaced UnanganlUnangas have a deepened sense of the sacred value of our origins. We feel a loss for what we have been missing, be it Native foods, songs, dance, stories, or seeing beauty reflected in artfully made objects. We miss seeing people who physically resemble ourselves and physically feeling the common elements with which our own relate - elements such as wind, fog, salty air, and horizontal rain. We need to know these things about our cultural heritage and be able to share that common knowledge with family and community. We need to delight in hearing someone shout, "Aang, Unanga{! " (Hello, 'Aleut'). These are what many of those people returning from other places are searching for when they return to the village, or to Alaska. Many of us reside in the densely populated areas such as Anchorage and Fairbanks. Large numbers of UnanganlUnangas with close ties similarly reside on the west coast, particularly in Washington and Oregon. We consider our original villages home even if we have not been able to return there for many years. We share a need to assert, "Where we are from is important to us. What we like to eat is important. Our art is important. Our dance and music are important."

The Unangam foods are elemental to our culture. To have our Native foods sent to us when we are away is one of the most vitalizing, identity-rich gifts one's friends or family can bestow. Some of our traditional subsistence foods include aala{ (whale), isu{ (hair seal), aanu{ (red salmon), and qa{ (any kind of fish). From the beaches some favorites are chiknan (limpets), way}in (blue mussels), agu}aadan (sea urchins), qasiikun (chitons or gumboots), chuxlan (clams), and kahngadgin (seaweed). Saaqudan (aka Puuchkiis (R)), qaniisan (aka petrushkies (R)), fiddle head ferns, and other native vegetables seem to make one feel healthier. My favorite is uda{, dried fish with chadu{, seal oil. When we eat these foods we know more strongly who we are.

These valuable links to the Unangam culture are validation of our origins, touchstones to our self- and group-identities. It is an awesome responsibility that pairs us with various types of scholars and researchers as partners as we search for culturally appropriate ways to document traditional knowledge and skills. We are not just an exploitable resource, but an equal partner in this compilation of our world knowledge bank. The more any of us can know about who we are and where we come from, the more sensitive and confident we can be in our interactions among culturally diverse societies. Qa}aasakung. Thank you, for listening.

A version of this essay was printed in the Arctic Studies Center's publication of Crossroads Alaska: Native Cultures of Alaska and Siberia (1995) and Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers and Orators: The Expanded Edition, Alaska Quarterly Review (1999) Ronald Spatz, Executive Editor.

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