Unalaska will soon be home to a community banya, or steam bath. The banya is part of a cultural build project involving the Qawalangin Tribe, Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA), the Aleut Foundation, and California carpenter and professional iqyax̂ (Aleutian sea kayak) builder Marc Daniels.
Tribe employees involved in the build said they are unsure of when the community will be able to use the banya, or who will have access to it, but eventually, the steam bath will be a communal space for people to share stories, advice, and healing.
"We [Unangax̂] shared everything together," said APIA Youth Services Coordinator Dustin Newman. "And we shared resources because, as we all know, living in the Aleutians, winters are really, really long. And so that [happens] in the steam bath—that's where that sharing took place."
The banya, 'x̂ayaax̂' in Unangam Tunuu, was funded under APIA's Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative (MSPI) grant. And, according to Newman, the build is a means of revitalizing culture and, in turn, improving mental health. He said the banya is a space for the community to connect and to develop a more holistic approach to mental wellbeing, which is especially important for Alaska Native and Unangax̂ communities.
"From an indigenous perspective, I guess you could say, wellness is in four parts: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual," said Newman. "So tying those all together through cultural activities has proven to be successful within Alaska Native and American Indian people."
Newman—who is based out of Anchorage—came to Unalaska to help with both the iqyax̂ and the banya build. He said that in Unangax̂ culture, the banya is a place for sharing things like hunting spots, how to butcher a seal, or what to expect when you hit maturity. The banya did not originate within the Unangax̂ culture, he said, but was introduced when the Russians came to the region.
Despite that, Newman said the banya plays a major role in Unangax̂ culture as a sort of "learning center." And as part of this banya build, he and Camp Qungaayux̂ Coordinator for the Qawalangin Tribe, Shayla Shaishnikoff, interviewed various Unangax̂ elders to record some of their memories of steam baths.
"I know that they also like to sit down and share their memories and every once in a while a memory will just come back to them, something they hadn't thought of for a long time, and then they get to talk about it," said Shaishnikoff. "And I think that makes them really happy. It certainly makes me really happy."
While she's not involved much with the actual building of the banya, Shaishnikoff said she's extremely grateful to have the chance to hear and share these elders' stories.
The interviews will be included in an instructional video about the construction of the banya that will also feature the technical building process, which began in mid-September and is led by Marc Daniels.
"There's an Arctic entry connected to a dressing room," explained Daniels, motioning toward the banya. "And then there's the steam room. The steam room is eight feet by eight feet. It's all cedar-lined on the inside and smells great. And it's also got a steep roof. And it's got a little sitting loft way up high by a window so that people can get various levels of heat."
This is not Daniels' first time in Unalaska. He has led iqyax̂ builds at Camp Qungaayux̂ in years past, as well as other sea kayak builds in other parts of the region. And while this is his first time constructing a banya, as he talks about the richness and durability of the cedar in a wet climate, it's evident that he is passionate about this project and eager to learn.
"Dustin [Newman] clued me in on a few things," said Daniels. "The floors have got to drain, so you've got to have slots in the floor for the water to run out and cedar on the inside because it's going to be wet and steamy a lot. And then [there's] the multi-tiered benches so that you can start off hot and work your way down to the floor if you need to, that sort of thing. So yeah, I've learned a lot in the process."
Shaishnikoff said the tribe is still unsure how exactly the banya will play a community role. Due to COVID-19 health precautions, community members will likely have to wait until the pandemic poses less of a threat to the island's safety before it will be open to the community. According to Shaishnikoff, the tribe is still deciding who will have access to the banya—if it will only be for tribal member use or open to the entire community of Unalaska.
Regardless, she said she looks forward to eventually opening the banya to tribal members as a place of communal healing and purification.
"It's something that we've used for thousands of years," said Shaishnikoff. "And it's like a form of cleansing. It's not just a bath, it's not just a way to wash your body, but it's also spiritual and mental cleansing."
A previous version of this story stated that the banya build was funded through a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAHMSA) grant, however, it is actually funded under APIA's Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative (MSPI) grant.