Alaska Native Dance

Unangax and Sugpiaq Songs and Dances

Unangax

Many communities have worked to revitalize Unangax (also called "Aleut") song and dance traditions, which had been suppressed after two centuries of contact with Europeans and Americans. Most of these efforts began in the schools with the help of dedicated elders providing guidance and skills in making dance regalia, identifying the songs and dances, and encouraging youth to continue their efforts. The musical instruments are simple but elegant, consisting of handheld drums and human voices. The dances have always been tied to events in the village. They are a form of storytelling, and like stories, they are performed for the occasion, whether ceremonial or casual. The composers are credited before the performances.

In the early 1800s, the Russian Orthodox priest Iakov Netzvetov, whose mother was Unangax and father was Russian, wrote down the words to a song he saw performed in his home village of Atka. An early prose translation from the Unangax language (first into Russian, then into English) goes like this:

As it is done by the timid that I might do likewise,
I hid and departed.
And when I rode, gazing about, I saw the beast the sea lion, that he adroitly dives and comes up;
Stopping opposite him, I began to think:
Even for the timid one it seems possible to do with him one’s will;
And thinking that in my undertakings even I have had success, I took from the stern of my baidarka a javelin,
stripped the sheath (from the point) and placed (the javelin) before me.
I rode and drawing near to him, I shot at him, but did not place the javelin in him.
He became enraged and dived,
I rode after him and shot at him, but could do nothing with him, but only spoiled the points on my javelins.
Although I had gone off with this (object) only,
that I might not see anyone;
Yet I looked about, that I might see someone, and did not see (anyone);
And if there had been anyone with whom to weep, I would have so (wept), in such a condition was I.
Having stopped there, I rode home; having arrived,
when I landed on the shore,
I turned my ears to hear that which I loved, and considered myself a master in, (I listened for) the
voice of the tambourine and did not hear (it).
Yes! As I thought, so it is, for here you are.
And so take your tambourine and sing.

(Here the dancer stops singing and those sitting around begin to beat on the
drums and to sing while he dances and represents the hunter.)

Some 175 years later, Alaska's Poet Laureate, Richard Dauenhauer, took a hand at rewriting the song in a more song-like way. It might have sounded something like this, had it been performed in English:

It was something
anyone could do.
Nothing special,
so today,
I slipped away to hunt.


I paddled along,
looking around,
and saw an animal,
a sea lion,
rising joyfully
to the surface.


I stopped in front of him,
I thought


“nothing special,
anyone can do it “


and thinking
that I could kill him too
I pulled a spear from the strapping
on my bidarki stern.

Paddling toward him,
getting close to him,
I speared him.
But it didn’t penetrate.


Suddenly
he dived away.


I paddled after him,
I shot at him
again and again
but only lost
my spear points.


To see no one
I had slipped away on purpose;
I looked around for someone
but in vain.


If there’d been
one with whom to cry
I would have felt like crying.


After having drifted for a while
I paddled off,
to get back home.
Getting back,
I landed.

My ears were tuned
for the sound of drumming,
for the one I love
above all else,
for the one I think
I’m a master of:
the drum.


I did not hear it sounding
but I knew
you must be there
and there you are!
Take up the drums,
open up your mouths
and sing!

Sugpiaq

Sugpiaq (also called "Alutiiq") songs blend styles from the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian with Unangax, Athabascan, and Yup’ik cultures, creating an unmistakable style of their own.

Dancers are easy to recognize because of their unique regalia. During ancient ceremonies, performers often wore elaborate clothing, some specific to certain ceremonies, as well as carved wooden masks with complex attachments. People were tattooed and wore body paints and other decorative adornments. Today, the women wear a beaded headdress called a nacaq. The men wear various head pieces, including one that is significant in both the Unangax and Sugpiaq cultures, the bentwood visor known as caguyaq.

Sugpiaq dances are most often composed by members of the respective dance groups, but sharing is common, as long as the composer is credited before each performance.

This video shows the Sugpiaq dance group Imamsuat performing at a mask burning ceremony held in Kodiak in 2009 in honor of Sugpiaq leader and former Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety Glenn Godfrey, who died tragically in 2002 at age 53.


Masks were customarily burned, as depicted in this dance. However, today's Sugpiaq are glad that some masks were collected by the French traveler Alphonse Pinart in the 1880s and taken to a museum in France. Alaskans have traveled to view the masks and brought them back to Alaska on loan in an exhibition, where they continue to demonstrate the spiritual vision and artistry of the Sugpiaq ancestors.