New classes at this summer's Camp Qungaayux taught kids traditional Unangax̂ skills they haven't learned in previous years.
Organized by the Qawalangin Tribe, the culture camp brought 68 kids to Unalaska's Humpy Cove for a weeklong celebration of Unangax̂ tradition. Now in its 22nd year, the July program had more kids and classes than ever before.
"There are two new classes," said Shayla Shaishnikoff, the camp coordinator. "One of them is drum-making. Another one is ayaakux̂. It's dart-making and a dart game."
Shaishnikoff also said this year's camp welcomed mentors and elders from Unalaska, Akutan, Anchorage, and California.
"We bring these people in who have the traditional knowledge so they can share it with the youth and the youth can practice making a bentwood hat, building an ulux̂tax̂, making a drum, learning Unangam Tunuu from Moses Dirks, and weaving," she said.
While classes like basket-weaving, seal skin-sewing, and bentwood hat-making have been taught for years, organizers are now thinking about rotating classes in and out. That way, Shaishnikoff said they can share more traditional skills and keep things new and interesting for campers.
The idea worked well this summer, according to eighth grader Skyler Whittern. His favorite class was one of the new ones: ayaakux̂, or dart-making.
"I just like carving the wood and stuff. It's fun," said Whittern. "Once you're done, you can play it. I've never done it before, but it's really fun to do."
The dart class was taught by Hugh Pelkey of Akutan. He said the ayaakux̂ is about nine-and-a-half inches long and tapered from back to front. It has a steel tip made from a nail and goose-tail feathers at the back. Traditionally, Unangax̂ kids used it for throwing practice.
"This was given to kids when they were 5 years old," said Pelky. "By the time they were 10 years old, they were ready to join their father in the hunt."
At Camp Q, the dart game is played with a small wooden effigy of an animal, like a whale, fur seal, or fish. The player sits like they're in a kayak, with face and feet towards the target, which is hung on a string. They earn different points depending on where the dart hits: three for the lungs, six for the tail. When the player reaches exactly 12 points, they win.
Pelky was inspired to learn about darts by his aachax̂ and other elders in his community.
"Aachax̂ is like a godfather in Aleut. It means someone that's just like me," said Pelky. "I'd been intrigued with the stories of [Unangax̂ people] using darts. I never got to see them use them. But then, when my aachax̂ died, we tore down his warehouse and I actually found a dart. That's how I got my start."
Now, Pelky loves sharing his knowledge with today's kids.
"I'm getting old and I'm thinking to myself, why am I keeping this to myself? I need to get out there and get these guys to learn this stuff," he said.
Vince Tutiakoff Sr. of Unalaska agreed. He was camp coordinator from 2010 to 2017. This year, he came back as a hunting and fishing mentor.
He said teaching traditional skills, like hunting and language, is vital.
"Without the culture camp, the language and the dance that you hear would not be happening," said Tutiakoff.
Tutiakoff said he remembers what it was like to see cultural traditions erased. Growing up, he wasn't allowed to speak Unangam Tunuu in or around school, and he was slapped on the hand when he was caught speaking it with friends.
Because so much was lost, he said revitalizing language and skills is important — not only to Unangax̂ people, but to everyone in the community.
"My generation, a lot of them may understand [the language], but they don't speak it very well," said Tutiakoff. "It's a lost part of our culture. Without our language, it's kind of like [losing] identity."
He said he's happy to see young people like Shaishnikoff, who grew up attending Camp Q, come back as camp leaders. In turn, Shaishnikoff said she's proud to be camp coordinator and to continue reviving Unangax̂ traditions.
"For us to have this camp, it's a way to revitalize our culture and make sure we're bringing it back," said Shaishnikoff. "These kids have the knowledge. When these mentors aren't here anymore, my hope is that some of these kids will be teaching the classes so we can keep this going and we can keep our culture alive."
Camper Lucy Bagley is onboard. The 10-year-old said she's looking forward to camp next year.
"I would just like to say thank you to the people who did this for the community and for letting everybody have this experience to see these things," said Bagley.
The 23rd Camp Qungaayux will take place in the summer of 2020.