Unangax Dance Performance at the Festival of Native Arts
Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, 'Wáats'asdiyei Joe Yates

Unangax̂ & Sugpiaq

Unangax̂ & Sugpiaq Culture

These two cultures are found in Southwest Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Unangax̂ (Oo-nun-gahx) settlements are in the Aleutian Island Chain and Pribilof Islands, and Sugpiaq (Soog-pyack) are associated with Kodiak Island, Prince William Sound, the outer Kenai Peninsula, and part of the Alaska Peninsula. The Aleutian Islands are a chain of volcanic islands that sit between the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Kodiak or Qikertaq is the second biggest island only behind the big island of Hawaii. The Unangax̂ speak Unangam Tunuu and Sugpiaq speak Sugcestun.

Sugpiaq dance performers
Sugpiaq dancers in Port Graham. Photo Credit: Lexi Qass’uq Trainer (Cup’ik/Yup’ik)

The Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq lived a maritime existence and depended upon the sea for their survival. In the 18th century, Russians came to Alutiiq land, and the population was forever changed. Today, the Russian influence on their way of life remains, and the Russian Orthodox Church plays a large part in their lives. Russian traders used the word Aleut to describe the people of Southwest Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Although Aleut is still sometimes used, the people they were referring to are the Sugpiaq, Unangax̂, and Unangas. Sugpiaq also call themselves Aluutiq.

Water determined their way of life. Their food came mainly from the ocean and rivers; their clothing, made of tightly-sewn animal skin, had to be waterproof. Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq men wore elaborate hunting regalia designed, in part, to honor the spirits of the animals. Fur tassels, feathers, and beads ornamented the skin kamleika, or robe. The shape of his wooden hat indicated a man's status, and sea lion whiskers attested to his hunting prowess.

Unangax dancer
Photo Credit: 'Wáats'asdiyei Joe Yates (Haida)

The Aleutian Islands may have been one of the last places settled by Indigenous people migrating westward from the Alaska Peninsula to the 1,300-mile-long Aleutian archipelago. Both Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq lived in oblong, semi-subterranean houses made with wooden or whale bone rafters covered with grass. The entrances were holes in the roofs with ladders. Settlements were typically coastal villages, ideally with gravelly beaches well-suited to landing boats. They traveled in qayaqs, (baidarkas, in Russian) or in large skin boats called angyaqs, or baidars.

Today, like many Alaska Natives, they live in houses in communities all along the Aleutian Islands and on Saint Paul and Saint George Island in the Pribilofs. The Pribilofs were not historically occupied, although the people of the Aleutian Islands were aware of them.

The Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak shares the living language, traditions, stories and history and is a wonderful starting point for information on Alaska Native cultures in the Southwest region. On St. Paul Island, one of the Pribilof Islands and a popular location for birding, there is the Tanadgusix TDX Museum that holds many artifacts and stories of local history. The Museum of the Aleutians is a cultural history institution for the Aleutian Islands in the community of Unalaska.

Unalaska on the Aleutian Islands

Cultural Regions Map

Alaska Native Cultures Lands Map

Unangax̂ & Sugpiaq Traditions & History

From the Alaska CulturalHost Program


The territory of the Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq stretches from Prince William Sound to the end of the Aleutian Islands. There are also over 300 Unangax̂ People in Nikolskoye on Bering Island, Russia. Linguists estimate that the Unangam Tunuu language separated from the earlier Indigenous language 4,000 years ago.

Anthropologists have classified the Sugpiaq People into three main groups:

  • Chugach of the Prince William Sound area,
  • Unegkurmiut of the lower Kenai Peninsula, and
  • Koniagmiut or Koniag of the Kodiak Island and Alaska Peninsula.

In the Sugpiaq language, the suffix “-miut” is added to names signifying “the people of” a certain place. Thus, each village has a name for its people and each regional area has a name for its people. The people of Kodiak Island, for example, are called Qikertarmiut (gi-gik-tag-mee-ute) meaning “People of the Island.”

Sugpiaq dancer in Port Graham
Sugpiaq dancer in Port Graham. Photo Credit: Lexi Qass’uq Trainer (Cup’ik/Yup’ik)


The Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq People lived in numerous coastal villages as well as a few inland villages located on rivers and lakes Each settlement had defined territories for harvesting resources such as seals, sea lions, halibut, salmon, cod, birds, plants, and driftwood. The traditional houses of both cultures were semi-subterranean.

The Sugpiaq houses, called ciqlluaq, provided efficient protection from harsh weather conditions. For thousands of years, the house style consisted of a central family room, with side rooms for bedrooms and steam bath.

The ulax, the basic Unangax̂ house, was an oblong pit dwelling with wooden or whale bone frames and rafters covered by grass and sod. These dwellings were often hard to distinguish from the surrounding terrain. They were entered by means of a pole ladder through the ceiling.


The kayaks of the Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq called, respectively, iqyax and qayaq, were distinguished from other sea craft by the split bow, which increased the seaworthiness and speed of the craft. Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq hunters wore distinctive bentwood visors with sea lion whiskers. These visors provided protection from glare as well as a visual symbol of the status of the hunter. The number of sea lion whiskers attached showed the successes in hunting.

The Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq used various portions of sea mammals for clothing and other utensils. The skins of seals, sea lions, sea otters, bears, birds, squirrels, and marmots were all used for clothing items. Hats and baskets were woven from spruce roots and grass. Baskets were woven with geometric patterns, considered among the finest in the world, with up to 2500 stitches per square inch. Women wove other goods: cords, cables, and fish line from plant fibers and animal tissue.

Unangax man holding traditional bentwood had
Photo Credit: Dave Fedorski for Midnight Run, LLC


Kinship and family connections persist throughout the regions and are important in the management of the village, as well as decision-making related to everyday life. Today, many Elders reminisce about the past, mentioning the strong value of sharing and helping one another in the villages of their youth. Village members would punish those who violated the rules of conduct of the village. The most serious form of punishment was banishment.


Due to the wet maritime climate, it was crucial to have waterproof clothing. Therefore, the garments made of skin and gut were sewn with incredible precision making them very effective against the wet weather. Clothing was decorated with colorful natural dyes, feathers, and puffin beaks, and in some cases elaborately carved ivory, bone, or wooden figurines.

During ceremonies, performers often wore elaborate costumes, some specific to certain ceremonies. Carved wooden masks, some with complex attachments were used. People had tattoos and also wore body paints and other decorative items.

Sugpiaq dancer in Port Graham
Photo Credit: Lexi Qass’uq Trainer (Cup’ik/Yup’ik)


Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq are known for their skill in building the iqyax/qayaq. They also used the igilax/angyaq, a large, open, skin boat, for travel and trade. Traveling was most often done by sea in these skin boats. However, people also walked long distances. For example, on Kodiak Island, remnants of the trails used by Sugpiaq People to cross the island remain visible today.


The Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq People traded among themselves as well as with others, such as the Yup’ik of Bristol Bay, Dena’ina Athabascans of the Cook Inlet area, the Ahtna Athabascans of the Copper River, the Eyak, and Tlingit. This trade enabled them to balance their diet as well as take advantage of foreign technology.


The Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq Peoples are maritime people obtaining most of their food and livelihood from the sea. Historically, sea mammal hunters went to sea, sometimes traveled long distances in their skin covered iqyax/qayaq or ‘baidarka’, as they became known in Russian. For larger groups, people traveled in a large, skin covered boat called an angyaq or igilax.

Historically, villages were usually located at the mouths of streams to take advantage of fresh water and abundant salmon runs. In addition to nets, traps and weirs for fishing, people used wooden hooks and kelp or sinew lines. Today, salmon, halibut, octopus, shellfish, seal, sea lion, caribou (on the Alaska Peninsula), and deer remain important components of the Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq subsistence diet.


In Unangax̂ and Alutiiq/Sugpiaq cultures, the winter was a time for elaborate celebrations and ceremonies. Singing, dancing, and feasting took place as part of these rituals. The festivals usually began in late fall after all the necessary food for the winter had been gathered and stored. The festivals and ceremonies were held in large communal houses, called the qasgiq in Sugt’stun, and generally fell into two types: first were those of a spiritual nature, which were necessary to guarantee continued good hunting and fishing, and second, social celebrations, such as those for marriages and other events.

Sugpiaq dance performers
Photo Credit: 'Wáats'asdiyei Joe Yates (Haida)
Snowy mountain peaks in Alaska

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