Anchorage Unangax̂ Dancers debut new song honoring ancestors
Belly laughs and seagull calls soared through the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage last month, as hundreds of people gathered for the first in-person Alaska Federation of Natives convention since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Friday, Oct. 21, the Anchorage Unangax̂ Dancers took the stage for the very last performance of Quyana Nights, a highly-awaited celebration of traditional dance, featuring more than a dozen dance groups from across Alaska.
It was a particularly special evening for Unangax̂ dancer and drummer, Dustin Unignax̂ Newman, who composed the Anchorage dance group's newest song: "Kadaangis Taligii" – "Ancestors Dance."
“We always talk about how our ancestors are always with us,” Newman said. “But this is that visual and that vocal representation of that saying, ‘ancestors come to the space with us, dance with me, sing with me. We invite you into this space.’”
Many dancers were outfitted in hand-stitched regalia, waving tall bundles of grass in each hand, as they made their entrance. The grass sets the scene for their homelands, according to Newman, and replicates the beach grass that dances on the shores of Unangam Tanangin or Unangax̂ land.
Originally from Agdaaĝux̂, or King Cove, Newman says that the melody for Kadaangis Taligii was born during a visit to Unangam Tanangin this past summer.
“It literally came to me on a boat ride to King Cove listening to this tune,” he said. “I pulled my phone out. And on the first recording, you hear the boat engine roaring in the background.”
The dance group used to use a Koryak trade song as their entrance dance. An Indigenous group from eastern Russia, the Koryaks live on the coastlands of the Bering Sea. The trade song was originally taught to Atx̂am Taliĝisniikangis, or the Atka dancers, in the early 90’s.
“And we have Tilila, which is a Koryak trade song that we've been using for years as our entrance dance,” Newman said. “And so this isn't that replacement, but Kadaangis Taligii is saying, this is Unangax̂, this is our song.”
He says that they will continue to dance the trade songs that helped bring Unangax̂ dance back to life, but they will now use Kadaangis Taligii as their entrance dance. In Newman’s opening, he acknowledges the ancestors that were lost since the last time AFN was held in person.
“This is our first time coming together in two years,” Newman said. “And we’ve lost a lot of relatives during those two years. So tonight I ask that you bring your ancestors with you during this song.”
Unangam Tunuu expert Dr. Moses Qagidax̂ Dirks provided the translation for the song, and the Anchorage Unangax̂ Dancers spent only a few weeks developing the choreography before their debut at the convention.