The Atka Dancers / Unungax from Atka, Alaska
The trip to Atka, Alaska had to be one of the most exciting (and daring?) trips we took. We flew out of Anchorage, landed in Dutch Harbor, took off again, and landed on a tiny piece of paradise called Atka, Alaska.
Our host, Ethan Pettigrew, installed us in a trailer house next to the school. Even when the wind blew fiercely, we were warm and snug. Even when the plane couldn't fly out, we were warm and snug.
About 100 Unangax people live on Atka. The outside world calls them "Aleuts" but we were informed that is not their name. The village is spread across the small island and the people have made sure the school has every convenience.
One night many of the villagers gathered and we were invited to watch the young dancers. They got into full regalia, beaded headresses and all, and dance for us. It was so beautiful it moved both Milt and to tears. We even got to dance with them. My favorite was the Seagull dance where all the young people imitate the call of the bird. Ethan told us they were sent to the beach to learn the language of that beautiful bird. They did a good job.
It is difficult for most of us to imagine this kind of isolation. Except for subsistence hunting (reindeer) and fishing (halibut) they people rely on infrequent ships and expensive small cargo planes for all their supplies.
However, the people are also passionate about their culture and living it every day. The language immersion programs and traditional dance program are amazing. There is also a strong Russian Orthodox influence and we attended the mass with Ethan and his family.
On a darker note, Ethan also brought us a film one night and we watched a very difficult story unfold on the television screen, of this small village being "removed" during WWII and taken to eastern Alaska to a cold, cannery. Their village was burned by the U.S. government and it took many years for them to return and begin to rebuild.