Honoring culture through dance: Unalaska’s Iluulum Axanangin prepares debut performance

“I don’t think I’ve ever had this much fun in a dance group before,” said Iluulum Axanangin dance instructor Laresa Iklax̂ Syverson. (Courtesy Albert Burnham/PCR)

On a foggy July evening, Unalaska’s Unangax dance group — Iluulum Axanangin — drifted into the high school gymnasium dressed in handsewn regalia and beaded headdresses, dancing to their entrance song “Kadaliiĝin.” For most of the group, it was their first time on stage.

Dance instructor Laresa Iklax Syverson said the group had been working overtime to prepare for their debut at the Ounalashka Corp.’s 50th anniversary.

“We’ve been working towards this event because [Ounalashka] asked if we had any Unalaska dancers that could perform, because that would mean a lot to them,” stated Syverson. “And I said, ‘Well, we don’t right now, but in like three or four months, we could probably put something together.’”

Syverson said that there was a lot of interest in re-establishing the dance group, which now has the most participants since its inception in 2000. The 15 dancers range from 10 to 70 years old.

Syverson first learned to dance more than two decades ago when Atka dancer Crystal Dushkin came to the island to help local Qawalangim Unangax reawaken the traditional practice. With the help of Dushkin, Moses Qagidax Dirks and the local raven population, Syverson has written and choreographed five songs.

Their entrance song, “Kadaliiĝin,” was inspired by a quote from St. Paul Russian Orthodox Priest Father Michael Lestenkof. Syverson said she gifted the song to Lestenkof’s daughter, Aquilina Lestenkof, who helped reawaken Unangax dance on St. Paul Island.

Syverson said that it wasn’t too long ago that Unangax weren’t allowed to practice their language, tattooing, dance and other cultural practices.

“We were arguing about who gets to dance where,” said Syverson. “And those are the kind of arguments I’m really happy to be having with people because it wasn’t so long ago that we weren’t really allowed to dance and embrace our traditional beliefs. So the fact that we can argue about it is perfectly fine with me.”

All of the Iluulum Axanangin dancers had the opportunity to make their own regalia for the performance, through a grant from the Ciri Foundation’s A Journey to What Matters project. The grant, which was awarded to Unalaska’s Qawalangin Tribe in April, provided funding for Unangax artists Tatiana Sakuchax Petticrew and Shirleyann Akucha Shapsnikoff to teach the regalia making class.

During their debut performance, the dancers were able to show off their hand-stitched sax — traditional regalia — decorated with seal and otter fur, beads and leather tassels.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had this much fun in a dance group before,” said Syverson. “This group right here is so motivated and inspired, and they want to own it. They want to embrace it. I can tell they want to write their own songs. They want to choreograph their own dances.”

She said she hopes this group continues to inspire Unangax youth to be the next generation of songwriters and storytellers.

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