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by Barbara Carlson

As an Unanga{ educator and a person who grew up in Unalaska, the disaster scenario is one I could easily imagine. I recall waking to the sounds of crashing dishes, things falling off shelves with thuds in the dark, and a younger sister crying. I remember vigilant parents hustling us to put on our clothes over our pajamas so that we would have more layers and dress quickly. Then they fed us in the middle of the night so we would not be hungry if we had to head for the hills. Another time, my gentle father sternly swooped me off the beach much to my surprise. I had hurried with my chores to go down to my favorite place in the world—the beach at low tide. I did not know the extremely low tide was connected to an earlier earthquake and that townspeople were watching for a tsunami. Young people will have the chance to learn far more than I have learned in my lifetime about our local plants in this unit. The subject will connect them to this place and extend their curiosity to the worlds of botany, of science, and of technology.

Unangan/Unangas Elders tell us people should know about the survival foods and medicinal plants where they live. In efforts to adapt after contact, we lost some of the usual ways our young people learned these things. In our traditional education youth learned from their Elders, aunts, uncles, and parents. When laws forced the speaking of English and school attendance, relationships that gave the supportive environment for traditional teaching began to disappear. The collaborative writing of new curriculum is indicative of the spirit of reclamation in our decision to resume participation in the education of youth. Truly, to build strong communities we must take collective responsibility for all our young people. If we choose to make our lives in this place, then we have commitments to honor together in raising and educating tomorrow’s citizens.

Indigenous peoples everywhere are reclaiming, revitalizing and perpetuating their cultures. They are reclaiming their names for themselves such as Unangan or Unangas in place of Aleut. We realize that while our languages have declined, there is value in them beyond communication. Traditional knowledge is contained in the structure, use and meaning of language. Exposure to elements of Unangam tunuu and familiarity with the phonetic sound system will help ready scholars for the rigors of further linguistic endeavors should they so desire. While it is not always feasible to become fluent in a new language, people can choose to learn how to say words and phrases that are commonly used where they live, thus allowing them to adapt and immerse themselves in the beauty, the poetry of a culture.

Learning Unangam tunuu is becoming difficult as few villages remain where parents teach it to their young as a first language. Armed with this information we are charged with supporting efforts to maintain existing fluency and exploring alternative ways of preventing further loss. Just as teachers will find different botanical resources in each village, so will there be different levels of Native language usage in each place. Places such as Atka, St. George and St. Paul have a number of youth who speak fluently, while in other places the youngest speakers are over 60. In the year 2000, only Unalaska had a certificated teacher who spoke Unangam tunuu as his first language. The majority of students’ parents never had the opportunity to learn their own language. Consequently, with this guide a teacher is able to help students, some of whom will be Unangan/Unangas, and their peers learn some rudiments of the language or reinforce that to which they are being exposed.

Teachers new to the area should consider beginning slowly by using only the vocabulary within the lessons unless they are self-motivated learners or linguist enthusiasts. Available support will vary in each place. If speakers exist, only a few of those are literate in Unangam tunuu. Enthusiastic, energetic teachers will need to become more involved with the sound system, grammar, and etymologies. Use the new standardized spellings provided. A number of older sources contain nonstandard usage, which while historically valuable contributes to confusion. The section titled “Unangam Tunuu Sound System” provides a resource list, and the rudiments of the phonetic system. Teachers who encourage students to share language information at home as part of their assignments will likely be rewarded by increased interest and participation. Some of us have never had a chance to learn even a few words, and if we have, most likely have never been introduced to the standardized orthography or spelling.

“How to use the Aleut Dictionary” will be invaluable if you decide to use The Aleut Dictionary/Unangam Tunudgusii. The section contains a brief history of the language and the work. It will help you avoid common pitfalls.

The Association of Unangan/Unangas Educators (AUE) coordinated this project. AUE is one of nine Alaska Native Educator Associations recently formed to address unique needs. This curriculum is posted on the Web on the Alaska Native Knowledge Network “http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/unangan”. The link for the Alaska Native Knowledge Network will give you an idea of what our networks are undertaking in the interest of integrating our traditional indigenous knowledge into the mainstream education systems and communities before they are lost to the world. While there are constraints to completing the work, the network allows us to benefit from one another’s successes, failures, and opportunities.

Most of our members live not only in different places, but on different islands. We have never been able to all meet face-to-face due to logistics. We are thrilled, however, with the things we are able to accomplish through audio-conference meetings, newsletters, and e-mail communication. Participation of Elders and local experts in your project will greatly enhance learning. Keep in mind that in some places the same resource people are called upon year after year, so it may not be convenient for them to be involved every time. Ask if they can suggest another person or books that they consider useful in the area.


The mission of AUE is to support the efforts of Unanga{ educators to integrate traditional knowledge and language into schools in a way that is accurate and long-lasting. Goals: 1) to help tradition bearers of Unanga{ knowledge find ways to participate that are comfortable for them and do not drain their resources and 2) to support educators who endeavor to integrate traditional Unanga{ knowledge and language into schools.

To contact current Association of Unangan/Unangas Educators representative, please check the following Web site: http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/Unangan/




In discussions that followed the pilot testing, Unanga{ Elder, Gertrude of Unalaska, made a recommendation. She suggests that if educators feel overwhelmed, either by their workload or the depth of the material itself, that they select one activity to try this year. Then, during following years it will be easier to do more, building upon knowledge gained the first year.



The Unangam Elders’ Academy decided which of several subjects should be done first. It was a difficult decision because many things are urgent as our tradition bearers pass away at an alarming rate. The decision to focus first on plants was made to reinforce the culture and stewardship camps where young people have been learning from generous mentors about our local plants. Elders instructed us to do this so that students are pulled into the world of science by becoming familiar with local plants associated with their names in Unangam tunuu and traditional knowledge. It is a small project, but we hope that by doing one small thing correctly we will see more clearly how to continue to document appropriate ways to share the traditional knowledge of the Unangan/Unangas.

In meetings and directives prior to this project, Elders have told us to use our words in Unangam tunuu even if they sometimes forget, having become accustomed to using Russian loan words popularized the last two centuries. It is good policy to always teach the appropriate word in Unangam tunuu if one can be found, or they will be forgotten. Elders often use “Aleut” but want to hear us say “Unangan” (Eastern) or “Unangas” (Western). It is a matter of habit. They might say bidarka when they would be delighted for us to use iqya{. Most people only know our semi-subterranean sod homes as barabaras instead of ulan (E) or ulasus (W). The more we say the words the more the Elders will get to hear them again. They get lonely for someone to talk to in their own language. They long for the sounds of Unangam tunuu.

Welcome to this wild and beautiful place. Qa}aalaku{, thank you, for helping us assure that the traditional plant knowledge and language of these islands will be lost neither to ourselves, nor to the world. Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm and excitement about learning. Thank you for choosing to teach here.



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