#UAAGrad shares Unangax research with the world

by J. Besl  |   

Haliehana Stepetin
I AM UAA: Haliehana Stepetin, a Russian-speaking Unangax dancer from Akutan, combined her cultural interests into an independent study of the Aleutian Islands she calls home. (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Haliehana Stepetin was the last person born on the island of Akutan, delivered with the help of her aunties inside her grandparents' home. Those rich roots in the Aleutian chain have affected every aspect of her life, personally, professionally and especially academically. As the daughter of a crab fisherman, the Coast Guard presence led her to the military as a teenager. As an Unangax woman, she began dancing and learning her language at a young age. And as a college student, born and raised in the overlap of Unangax, Russian and American cultures, she made the most of her time at UAA.

In the Navy

This May, Haliehana will graduate after three years at UAA. It's similar to her high school trajectory, where she graduated at 16 from the Alaska Military Youth Academy. She next joined the Navy, enlisting on her 17th birthday (her first day of eligibility).

She credits the Navy for setting her on the path to succeed, though her own hard work helped along the way. Haliehana excelled in 'A' School — the Navy's training course after boot camp — and was allowed to pick her weapons systems. At weapons school, she graduated top of her class and could pick her duty station. "A ship came up in Hawai'i and I said, 'Oh, I'll take that one,'" she laughed.

Stationed on the USS Chosin, a guided missile cruiser in Pearl Harbor, Haliehana continued climbing ranks. She reached the fourth enlisted rate (out of nine) in a year. At 19, she was the youngest to reach the fifth enlisted rate-petty officer, second class — in the ship's 20-year history.

That military career led nicely into UAA. "I grew up in the Navy," she acknowledged. "They really prepare you to be a professional in the outside world. They give you a lot of responsibility — and stress," she smiled, "but they teach you how to deal with it and make decisions that matter."

By the time Haliehana left the Navy in 2013, she had five people reporting to her daily. College didn't seem like a challenge in comparison.

From one island chain to another

Though saying goodbye to life in Hawai'i wasn't easy, it was the right choice. "I wanted to be here, closer to my family and closer to my culture," Haliehana said. She enrolled at UAA and took a course load most students would think unfathomable. "My first semester at UAA I took 19 credits, but I think it's because I needed that stress," she laughed. "I missed it."

She enrolled in an international studies course and instantly connected with the material. On May 1, she'll graduate with a degree in international studies and minors in anthropology and Russian.

She hasn't slowed down during her senior year. Instead, she combined her varied academic interests and her personal background into an independent study course to research a very personal subject — Unangax revitalization.

Russian research   

Working with professor emeritus Dr. Doug Veltre, Haliehana tackled a mighty project that spanned the three cultures that influence the Aleutian chain-translating Russian texts on Unagax customs into an American university thesis. Sifting through centuries-old Russian documents proved to be an eye-opening experience.

Though the Russian period in Alaska (1741-1867) had significant adverse effects on Alaska Native cultures, it did introduce the written language. Prior to Russian influence, Unangax history was passed down generationally through language. If the Russians hadn't recorded the traditions of the Unangax, the entire culture may have disappeared under the Americans' aggressive assimilation policies.

These Russian documents proved powerful for Haliehana's research interests. "Everything I wanted to do was Unangax, based on my culture, but I couldn't find any credible sources," she noted. Though discussions with her elders were personally valuable, it wasn't enough to build a defensible anthropologic study. Dr. Veltre pushed her to find more documents, which Haliehana originally didn't think existed. After all, written history wasn't a part of Unangax culture until relatively recently. So she turned to the Russian side. "I just dug for anything I could possibly find," she said.

For a taste of her research efforts, consider the 400-page text by Gavril Sarychev, a Russian naval officer who documented the Alaska Native population across the Aleutians. It was the most specific population data Haliehana had seen for the era, locked inside a dense Russian-language document. In a way, Haliehana — a Russian-speaking Unangax college student in Alaska — was the perfect person to unlock these 'A-ha moments' from the depths of the archives. She provided results of her research on a blog so her translations and data will be available for future research projects.

That online web resource is a testament to her dedication. "She's really a remarkable student-very smart and very capable," her advisor, Dr. Veltre, said of her research. "The work she does is just excellent. She has a lot of interests — probably more interests than could be accomplished in a single lifetime — but she's committed to bringing information about the culture and history back to her region."

Haliehana provided new information for Dr. Veltre, while he sharpened her writing and analysis. "It was a big learning experience," she noted. "It was a lot of research and a lot of work and a lot of hours, but it was so fulfilling and so worth it."

Next steps

Dr. Veltre is just one of many mentors in Haliehana's life. She's taken classes in her local language, Unangam tunuu, with expert linguist Moses Dirks since she was a child. She continues to apprentice under him on a weekly basis here in Anchorage, developing lesson plans to help revive the severely endangered language. "One of my goals is to teach Unangam tunuu in immersion schools so we don't lose it," she said.

Likewise, she's also a dance leader for Unangax dancing — including her hometown group of Akutan dancers, Akutanam Axasniikangin — working to preserve a crucial narrative art that was nearly lost during the Russian period. She frequently collaborates with UAA professor Maria Williams on Alaska Native dance performances both on campus and around the city. "Maria is great," Haliehana added. "She finds students and absolutely does everything to harbor their talents and make them flourish."

With a diploma in hand, the future is wide open for Haliehana. But whatever happens next, she has a personal drive and a strong network that supports her. "Here at UAA I realized that I have opportunities and I have people to connect with and help me accomplish my goals," she said. As a UAA alumna, she'll take those personal connections with her as she continues to revive and share her culture.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

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