“Can you tell me a bit about the dance? What does it mean?”
“That was my father’s dance. He wrote it and performed it, now I carry it on.”
“I think this was about a seal. We’ve lost the translation so we don’t know for sure.”
“Ohhhh… [laughs]. Well then, I have to tell you a bit about the red light district in Nome, back in the late 1800s…”
This weekend Emily and I attended the Kingikmiut Dance Festival in the village of Wales.
A three-day event, the festival was part music, part food fest, part family reunion. Once a year, singers and dancers from across the area gather to perform traditional native drum and dance, with each community sharing their own repertoire of songs. Among these were performers from Gambell, Teller, Point Hope, Wales, King Island, and even an Anchorage group composed of individuals who reside in the city but are originally from communities in the Alaskan bush.
I fed on delicious muktuk- raw whale- for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whale with pancakes, whale with spaghetti, whale with whale. Whale is salty, tasty, chewy, and full of amazing nutrients. I am a whale convert. Then there was cake and fry bread and coffee (my favorite food group) to take us into the late hours. Dancing went to about 3am on the first two days. On the last day, dancing went all night. If that sounds intense to you, keep this in mind: Alaskan traveling is limited and expensive, so dance festivals are an opportunity for families to get together after long separations to catch up on anything and everything. I talked to a woman who was originally from Diomede, grew up in Wales, and now lives in Teller, where her husband is from. It was heartbreaking to be able to see the island of Little Diomede from Wales but not be able to visit.
Technology and social media has helped communities stay connected, but it’s not the same as seeing someone in person, laughing with them, eating with them, dancing with them.
I learned a lot about drum and dance. I heard a lot of stories. Some of them fun, some happy, some very sad. My brain is still saturated with stories. A year in western Alaska and I’m still amazed to see the courage and love in those willing to share their lives with me; how vulnerable they make themselves opening up to a complete cheechako stranger like myself who they might never see again. But you know, after a year in western Alaska I think I’ve finally made myself vulnerable enough to share my stories with others, too. This growth has strengthened my relationships in ways I cannot yet fully describe. I like to think that all our stories cross paths at some point. They give each other hugs and high fives, exchange numbers, tell each we they are strong for making it alive this far and to stay in touch! But after the exchange is done, our stories remain our own cultural property.
Each village has their own songs and dances. To dance with a group that is not your own you have to be invited by a member of that group. Many of these songs have been passed down for generations. I saw elders dancing with their adult children and little grandchildren. I saw toddlers shorter than my knee caps on the dance floor with enough knowledge to know when to wave their arms or stomp their feet. I was, of course, completely out of my element. A fly on the wall, a KNOM representative there to help record the festival and put the audio on the air.
They didn’t hold that against me. From day one, I was invited to dance.