Drumbeats and headdresses: Unangax dance group connects descendants to their culture

After the World War II evacuation and internment of the Aleutian Islands, many Unangax peoples — Aleutian peoples with roots in Alaska prior to Russian occupation — found themselves in a strange new territory with few resources and virtually no support system. Descendants of the group have moved around Alaska and the United States since, and some of them have never able to return to their Native lands.

Darling Anderson performs a traditional Unangax dance during a performance in Anchorage. Anderson, a UAA student, said she found a deeper connection to her culture through the Unangax dance group. Photo credit: Darling Anderson

Darling Anderson, a UAA student, struggled with her own disconnection as a child.

“Growing up in Anchorage and False Pass, I did not have an opportunity to be a part of an Unangax dance group,” Anderson said. “Once I was given the opportunity, I jumped right on it.”

That opportunity came in the form of Anchorage Unangax Dancers, a group formed by Ethan Petticrew and several other Unangax dancers. Over the course of several years, the group gathered the materials to design, bead and hand-sew traditional regalia.

“This was the first Unangax dance group based out of Anchorage,” Anderson said.

Joanna Thompson, an Unangax who grew up in Anchorage, found a second family within the group.

“I never really got to experience that feeling like I was raised in a village, and I think that a lot of these Aleut kids in Anchorage feel that way,” Thompson said.

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Joanna Thompson’s daughter, Isabella, pushed her family to join the Anchorage Unangax Dancers after seeing them perform at a summer culture camp. She was only five years old at the time and has now spent more than half of her life immersed in traditional dance and singing in Unangam Tunuu, the official language of Unangax people.

“Without my regalia, I get so much stage fright,” Isabella Thompson said, “But when I put my regalia on, I feel like a superhero.”

The group often meets weekly to practice and perform throughout the year.

“It’s so good now that our kids are carrying on traditions that even a couple generations got skipped,” Joanna Thompson said. “I was raised that way like, ‘You’re an American, be proud to be American,’ which I am still, but also it’s so important for [Isabella] to have something that connects her with her ancestors.”

In spite of how young the group is, it has seen itself at the center of several big moments. In 2016, the group performed at the Alaska Airlines Center during President Barack Obama’s visit. Obama tuned in via video-conference to watch the performance.

Along with the dance group, there are now more ways to connect to cultural practices. In June of each year, the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association hosts an Urban Unangax Culture Camp. During the camp, attendees of all ages are able to learn Unangax beadwork, regalia making, language and dancing.

The Anchorage Unangax Dancers perform at the Southcentral Foundation Gathering, Alaska Federation of Natives and other events throughout the year.

The Urban Unangax Culture Camp begins in June.