Alaska Native Heritage Center, 15th Anniversary

Education and programs

Unangax & Alutiiq(Sugpiaq) Cultures of Alaska

ALASKA'S NATIVE PEOPLE ARE DIVIDED INTO 11 DISTINCT CULTURES, SPEAKING 11 DIFFERENT LANGUAGES AND TWENTY-TWO DIFFERENT DIALECTS. IN ORDER TO TELL THE STORIES OF THIS DIVERSE POPULATION, THE ALASKA NATIVE HERITAGE CENTER IS ORGANIZED BASED ON FIVE CULTURE GROUPINGS, WHICH DRAW UPON CULTURAL SIMILARITIES OR GEOGRAPHIC PROXIMITY.

Unangax & Alutiiq MapThe Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) People - Who We Are

The Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq)maritime peoples living in south and southwest Alaska. The water is living, whether it’s the creeks and rivers near villages, the shore outside or the vast waters of the North Pacific and Bering Sea. Knowledge of these resources and skill in harvesting them define the cycle of life in a village. The intensity of the weather that travels through our islands governs activities more than any other factor.

The Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) cultures were heavily influenced by the Russians, beginning in the 18th century. The Orthodox Church is prominent in every village, Russian dishes are made using local subsistence food, and Russian words are part of common vocabulary although two languages, Unangax and Sugcestun, are the indigenous languages.

Main Groups

The territory of the Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) stretches from Prince William Sound to the end of the Aleutian Islands. There are also over 300 Unangax in Nikolskoye on Bering Island, Russia. Linguists estimate that the Unangax language separated from the earlier Eskimo languages 4,000 years ago. Anthropologists have classified the Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) people into three basic groups,

  • Chugachmiut or Chugach of the Prince William Sound area,
  • Unegkurmiut of the lower Kenai Peninsula, and
  • Koniagmiut or Koniag of the Kodiak Island and Alaska Peninsula.

The suffix "-miut" is added to names signifying “the people of” a certain place. Thus, each village has a name for its people and each regional area has a name for its people. The people of Kodiak Island, for example, were called Qikertarmiut meaning “people of the large island.”

House Types and Settlements

The Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) people lived in numerous coastal villages as well as a few inland villages located on rivers and lakes. Each settlement had defined territories for harvesting resources such as seals, sea lions, halibut, cod, birds, plants and driftwood.

The traditional houses of both cultures were semi-subterranean. The Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) houses, called ciqlluaq, provided efficient protection from harsh weather conditions. For thousands of years, the house style consisted of a single room. The ulax, the basic Unangax house, is an oblong pit dwelling with wooden or whale bone frames and rafters covered by grass and sod. These dwellings were often hard to distinguish from the surrounding terrain. They were entered by means of a pole ladder through the ceiling.

Traditional Tools and Technology

The kayaks of the Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) called, respectively, iqyax and qayaq, were distinguished from other sea craft by the split bow, which increased the seaworthiness and speed of the craft. Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) hunters wore distinctive bentwood visors with sea lion whiskers. These visors provided protection from glare as well as a visual symbol of the status of the hunter. The number of sea lion whiskers attached showed the successes in hunting.

The Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) used various portions of sea mammals for clothing and other utensils. The skins of seal, sea lion, sea otter, bear, birds, squirrels, and marmots were all used for clothing items. Hats and baskets were woven from spruce roots and grass. Baskets were woven with geometric patterns, considered among the finest in the world with up to 2500 stitches per square inch. Women wove other goods: cords, cables and fish line from plant fibers and animal tissue.

Culture and Social Organization

Still important in Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) cultures are kinship and family relationships. These connections persist throughout the regions and are important in the management of the village, as well as decision-making related to everyday life. Today, many Elders reminisce about the past, mentioning the culture of sharing and helping one another in the villages of their youth. Village members would punish those who violated the rules of conduct of the village. The most serious form of punishment was banishment.

Clothing

Due to the wet maritime climate, it was crucial to have waterproof clothing. Therefore, the garments made of skin and gut were sewn with incredible precision making them very effective against the wet weather. Clothing was decorated with colorful natural dyes, feathers and puffin beaks, and in some cases elaborately carved ivory, bone or wooden figurines.

Transportation Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) are known for their skill in building the iqyax/qayaq [baidarka]. They also used the igilax/angyaq [baidar], a large open skin boat, for travel and trade. Traveling was most often done by sea in these skin boats. However, people also walked long distances. For example, on Kodiak Island, remnants of the trails used by Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) people to cross the island remain visible today.

Trade

The Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) people traded among themselves as well as with others such as the Yup’ik of Bristol Bay, Dena’ina Athabascans of the Cook Inlet area, the Ahtna Athabascans of the Copper River, the Eyak and Tlingit. This trade enabled them to balance their diet as well as take advantage of foreign technology.

Subsistence Patterns

The Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) peoples are maritime people obtaining most of their food and livelihood from the sea. Historically, sea mammal hunters went to sea, sometimes traveling long distances in their skin covered iqyax/qayaq or ‘bairdarka’, as they became known in Russian. For larger groups, people traveled in a large skin covered boat called an angyaq or ‘baidar’ in Russian.

Historically, villages were usually located at the mouths of streams to take advantage of fresh water and abundant salmon runs as they are today. Besides nets, traps and weirs for fishing, people used wooden hooks and kelp or sinew lines. Today, salmon, halibut, octopus, shellfish, seal, sea lion, caribou (on the Alaska Peninsula) and deer remain important components of the Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) subsistence diet.

Traditions and Ceremonies

In Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) cultures, the winter was a time for traditions involving elaborate celebrations and ceremonies. Singing, dancing and feasting took place as part of these ritualistic traditions. The festivals usually began in late fall after all the necessary food for the winter had been gathered and stored. The festivals and ceremonies were held in large communal houses, called the qasgiq, and generally fell into two types. First were those of a spiritual nature, which were necessary to guarantee continued good hunting and fishing, and second, social celebrations, such as those for marriages and other events.

Regalia

During ceremonies, performers often wore elaborate clothing, some specific to certain ceremonies. Carved wooden masks, some with complex attachments were used. People had tattoos and also wore body paints and other decorative items.