Despite coronavirus pandemic delays, Unalaska youth return to Humpy Cove for 24th annual Camp Qungaayux̂
A group of elders drinking coffee line a campfire out at Humpy Cove in Unalaska.
Kids trickle in, joining them on the benches, pizza slices and bagged sandwiches in hand. Over the fire, the echo of buzzing conversation trails from the main tent where eager campers line up, waiting for lunch.
Another couple dozen kids play on the beach, walk with their friends along the river and sit around their mentors, listening and watching.
It’s a typical lunchtime scene at Camp Qungaayux̂, the Qawalangin Tribe’s annual culture camp.
The roughly 50 campers at this summer’s camp had been hopping from one tent to the next all week: from skin and gut class — where they get to learn about skinning and harvesting seal — to bentwood hat making, to drum making, later on to Unangam Tunuu language class, then maybe off to iqyax̂ — Unangax̂ sea kayak — building.
Kaidon Parker is one of the older campers. His favorite part of camp was the iqyax̂ build, he said. This year, kids got to help build an ulux̂tax̂ — which is a two-person Unangax̂ skin-on-frame sea kayak.
“The mentors, they don't just show you how to make it,” Parker said. “They’re making the kayak relate to life in a way — how it’s mental, spiritual and all that stuff, and I really enjoy it.”
Joel Isaak is the tribal liaison for the Department of Education and Early Development. He’s a new mentor who came to help out with the iqyax̂ build, but he also came to teach the campers about fish skin.
“We skinned a halibut, scraped it — both sides — washed it with some dish soap and wood ash water to take out the fat,” Isaak said. “And we made willow tea — we peeled willow bark, boiled it to make tea, cooled it off and then put the skins in it for two days. And then this morning we rung it out, put some oil on it and we’ve been working it and scraping it.”
The campers participate through the whole process of tanning and preparing the halibut skin for a bag that Isaak will sew together and auction off on the final day of camp.
From skinning, to stretching, to tanning, Isaak said he’s trying to get the campers to think with all of their senses at the same time.
“There’s a certain level of pausing, like drawing their attention to what’s happening there, sound wise,” he said as he continued scraping the halibut skin. “There’s a sound, there’s a feel, there’s a look — like, ‘is this glistening like it's oily or is it glistening like it’s wet? Does this feel like it’s plump like a shammy or like it’s wax paper?’”
Isaak and the campers worked with seal, salmon and halibut skin this year.
He’s Dena’ina — from the Kenai-Soldotna area. This isn’t the first time he’s worked with fish skin, but this is Isaak’s first trip to the island.
Other camp mentors, like Patty Lekanoff-Gregory, are from the region. She’s been coming to camp every summer since it began, except for last year, the 23rd annual camp, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lekanoff-Gregory teaches students how to make chagudax̂, which are Unangax̂, or Aleut bentwood hats. She guides the students as they sand pieces of cottonwood into a smooth visor shape, prepare them in the “cooker,” and bend them over a tool called a “jig.”
Later, the campers will decorate the visors with paint, add beads, chin-ties and synthetic fishing line in place of sea lion whiskers.
“I use red oxide paint to paint the inside red,” Lekanoff-Gregory said. “They’re painted red because they’re supposed to be alive or part of the hunter — his hat, his body and the kayak — blood’s red — so everything’s alive.”
With all of the culture camps that she participates in, Lekanoff-Gregory estimates that she helps bend about 150 hats per year. In total, she said that’s a couple thousand with all the years she’s been helping as a camp mentor in Unalaska, Sand Point, Anchorage and St. Paul.
Camp Q was canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. This year, the tribe wasn’t sure if it would be safe to gather so many people together so planning got started late.
Anfesia “Sweetie” Tutiakoff started coming to camp as a kid and has helped mentored the skin and gut class for about 15 years. This year, though, she stepped up to run the event as camp coordinator.
Her father, Vince Tutiakoff Sr., has run the camp in the past and now attends as a mentor. He said he’s excited to see Sweetie take over this year.
“That’s what I think is important — is that the young people go from being students to mentors to actually running this camp at some point, because we’re not all going to be here forever so we’ve got to pass that traditional knowledge on,” Tutiakoff said.
With the help of tribal members, mentors, other organizations like the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association and community members, Sweetie said they got camp up and running in about two short months.
While she said preparing for the camp was rushed, Sweetie said she’s looking forward to coming back next year, hopefully as camp coordinator once again.
“It is so in my heart to do this,” she said. “It got me through a lot of hard times and it brings a lot of joy. It’s really near and dear to my heart. So it feels good to be able to do this and be a part of it.”
People came from across the region, from Akutan to St. Paul, Nikolski to Anchorage and Soldotna to help coordinate the 24th annual Camp Qungaayux̂.