In 2019, the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska initiated its Wellness Program through funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Good Health and Wellness in Indian Country grant aims to strengthen cultural connections that improve health and promote wellness in Indigenous communities across North America.
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Unangax̂ artist Anfesia “Sweetie” Tutiakoff is the culture and wellness program coordinator at the Qawalangin Tribe, and is using weekly craft nights to address wellness initiatives.
“I call Mondays the ‘cultural craft night.’ And that’s the one for 14 [years of age] and up,” said Tutiakoff. “It’s a themed night and it’s an instructed night. People can come and participate if they want to do that theme night, but they can also work on whatever [projects] they’re doing.”
Beginner weaving, beading and embroidery are just a few of the themed craft nights that have been hosted so far. These traditional Unangax̂ crafts are taught annually at Camp Qungaayux̂, the tribe’s youth culture camp that takes place at the island’s Humpy Cove every summer.
Tutiakoff was this year’s camp coordinator and said it was her goal to offer these classes year round to folks of all ages. Under the CDC grant, she said she’s finally able to do so.
“The reason why we put culture and wellness together is because our traditions, and the things that we’ve done in the past, are a way to wellness,” Tutiakoff said.
Exercising traditional craft is an important part of her Unangax̂ identity, according to Tutiakoff, and is especially soul-filling when it involves sharing those crafts with others.
“Seeing everybody here, and making sure that everybody was included in some capacity was amazing,” she said. “It touched my heart so much.”
While creating space for connection and sharing is the focus of these weekly events, the Qawalangin Tribe’s Wellness Program is also working to increase awareness about physical health.
According to the 2018 Alaska Native Mortality Report, heart disease was the second leading cause of death among Alaskan Native people with high blood pressure being a major risk factor.
At craft night, the tribe provides blood pressure monitors and logs for people who want to check their numbers and learn about what they can do to work towards a healthy reading.
“We have [blood pressure] forms here,” said Tutiakoff. “You can fill them out, check your blood pressure weekly, twice a week, a couple of times during the night just to see where you’re at.”
Elevated blood pressure is often asymptomatic, according to the CDC, so checking it is the only way to know for sure whether it’s too high.
The tribe also provides healthy store-bought snacks at the weekly events, but Tutiakoff said she hopes to offer more traditional foods in the future.
“My hope by the spring is to know more about what local traditional foods are here, and be able to introduce these to people on these nights,” she said. “Where you can find them, how you clean them, how you store them and how we can dry them for the winter.”
Tutiakoff said the Wellness Department is preparing to teach drum and headdress making, as well as wood carving and burning in the coming year, just to name a few.