Tugidam Ungii brings small batch goods to Unalaska
If you’ve visited a holiday market in Iluulux̂, or Unalaska, you’ve likely seen a table covered in small white gift boxes tied with neat blue bows. The little boxes contain Tugidam Ungii’s signature confections, which have become a staple at the island’s artisan markets.
Tugidam Ungii is a sprouting local business specializing in small batch goods, founded in 1995 by Unangax̂ knowledge holder, Sharon Svarny-Livingston. Svarny-Livingston is known in Iluulux̂ and beyond for her homemade salves, lip balms and chocolates.
She said she initiated her venture nearly two decades ago, while working at the Unalaska Visitors Bureau.
“I wanted to make some products from the plants that I worked with, just to show people that you could have a little hobby and actually make some money at it,” Svarny-Livingston said.
While juggling a full-time job and various board seats, she said she had to put her dream of growing the business on pause. But after retiring in late 2022, Svarny-Livingston relaunched Tugidam Ungii to the public, and now devotes her free time to her test kitchen.
Tugidam Ungii translates to “the moon’s sister” in Unangam tunuu, the Unangax̂ language. According to Svarny-Livingston, the name originates from an Unangax̂ tale about a woman who harvests plants for winter use.
While Svarny-Livingston has studied local flora for nearly twenty years, she didn’t grow up using plants. It wasn’t until she returned to Iluulux̂ after having her children that she started to pay attention to what popped up in the spring. She said that it was around this time that modern medicine was starting to replace the use of traditional plant medicine on the island.
“It was a long process of working with elders to find out the traditional uses of the plants,” Svarny-Livingston said. “It took me about 15 to 20 years.”
She said she feels grateful for the time she dedicated to learning about traditional plant use because all of the elders that she worked with are no longer living. Svarny-Livingston said she captured this knowledge just in time and has actively worked to share her love of plants with the community since. She teaches classes that incorporate traditional plant use at Camp Qungaayux̂ and Camp Agdaayux̂, the island's annual culture camps.
“That's the purpose of the whole thing — to have this knowledge,” she said. “And the right thing to do is to pass it on.”
Together, she and her students pick and dry plants, and use an outdoor fire to infuse oils. They talk about the plant's medicinal properties and how they can still be used today.
Wormwood salves and geranium shrubs are just some of the products her students learn how to make.
Last summer, she partnered with the Qawalangin Tribe’s wellness and culture program to facilitate classes centered in traditional healing for Alaska Native women. During these gatherings, she helps guide processes for historical and generational healing through traditional food, local flora and community.
During the island’s tourism season, when cruise ships are in town, you can find Tugidam Ungii at the Grand Aleutian Hotel. Svarny-Livingston also sells her products at winter markets around the holidays. And more recently, she has expanded her business repertoire to include gourmet chocolates.
“Days of work go into the making of bonbons,” Svarny-Livingston wrote in a Tugidam Ungii Facebook post. “Starting with painting the forms, pouring the chocolate shells, making the fillings, filling the shells, then capping the shells with the final layer of chocolate. Then you pray that in each step, the chocolate was in temper so that they actually come out of the forms.”
This year, she was awarded a grant from Aleutian Marketplace, a program that works with community members throughout the Aleutian-Pribilof region to explore business opportunities. With this grant, she said she will be purchasing a new refrigerator for her business to help streamline chocolate production and improve humidity control.
To stay up to date on Svarny-Livingston’s latest business ventures, follow Tugidam Ungii on Facebook.