Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dancing with Eskimos

Really. It's true. I danced with Eskimos. Woo Hoo! Not the shy kind of dancing that you do when you are in Junior High school, but the kind of dancing that you do when you are at the Festival of Native Arts in Fairbanks, following along with the traditional songs and dances of several different native tribes.

For most of the program, I just watched and listened. My favorites were the songs that told stories. The dance below, for instance, was recently created and tells the story of some men who went out in their motorized boat. When the motor died and they realized that they didn’t have any oars with them, they got to shore by throwing their anchor as far as they could in the distance, pulling themselves along the rope to the anchor, then pulling it up and throwing it forward again. See if you can see the story in this clip:

Another dance I enjoyed was the one that told the story of hunting for birds. In this dance, the hunter shoots at the bird, the bird feigns injury, but then gets away when the hunter tries to catch it. Can you see the story in the dance?

I also enjoyed the dances where older people performed. The various Eskimo groups have a great deal of respect for elders, and had the best seats in the auditorium reserved for them. The older man in this dance clip below loved the microphone, and often said cute and funny things into it. One time he said something like “We work hard at living, but we dance for fun.” Notice his cute boots, called mukluks.

Here’s a dance that includes an elderly woman. I loved her, because she danced so intently. I noticed that she also participated in the invitational dances for other tribes.

I also loved seeing the small children dancing. Here’s one of my favorites from a little boy:

Each group had twenty minutes to perform. Their last number was always an “invitational”, which means that anyone in the audience could come up and dance with them. I wanted to do that, but was a little shy about it, but with Rebecca and Ray's encouragement, I did go up and dance with the Eskimos.

My favorite dance I joined was with this drum circle group, which had representatives from several different tribes.

All of the songs done by this group were invitationals, and so I danced several dances with them. My favorite was a dance of greeting, where the dancers are in two circles, the inner circle moving in one direction and the outer circle moving in the other direction. Each dancer greets every other dancer with a handshake as they are moving around the circle to the beat of the drums.

I’m not sure what it was about that dance, but I found it totally compelling and fun. To be so warmly greeted by so many people gave me this huge sense of being welcome and included. There’s also something very engaging and primal about the rhythm of the drums— perhaps because it reminds us of the beating of our mother’s heart when we were in the womb.

We took a break from the dancing to check out some of the native arts and crafts.

We visited with an elderly woman in a wheelchair who had woven a basket made of bark that day. I was especially impressed by this necklace made from claws of a polar bear, the ivory tusk of a walrus, and onyx stone. The young man you see behind it was very kind to tell me all about it. Since it cost $1200, though, I didn’t bring it home, but just took a picture to remember it by. I was also very interested by the wooden Eskimo snow goggles (the first sunglasses) they had there, very necessary because of the blinding snow. I didn’t get a photo, but here’s a photo from the Museum of the North: They also had little Eskimo dolls at the Festival. Several years ago, Rebecca purchased one that was created by Umara Nupowhotuk, who also has dolls that are on display in the Smithsonian museum. Rebecca was able to chat with Umara again. Here’s a photo of Rebecca’s doll, which represents a Siberian Yupik Eskimo. The doll has face tattoos, just like the Yupik’s traditionally did, which have various meanings, and is made of traditional materials like seal and caribou skins. The doll stand is made out of a whale vertebrae. And, yes, that is a palm tree bedspread below the doll. That’s the bedspread in Ray’s daughters room where I stayed; I suspected she selected it as something hopeful to look at during the long, dark, Alaska winters.

Which brings me to my next point, and back to Eskimos. I left Alaska with the sense that people who live there during the long winters are hardy.

Very hardy. Survivors.

Back when I was dancing with the Eskimos in the drum circle, I was interested to learn that this drum circle had a rule that people had to be sober for 4 days before they could participate in the circle. I was surprised, because 4 days seemed like a very short time to be sober. Later, in downtown Fairbanks, we saw several natives who were drunk. Rebecca told me about how she would sometimes see them selling whale baleen on the street corners, which they can legally hunt for subsistence living, but then they often use the money from their sales to buy alcohol.

That makes me sad. My sense is that they come from a long line of survivors; they definitely have a heritage of which they can be proud. And, after seeing their beautiful dances and artwork, I also walked away with the sense that their cultural traditions are also something in which they can take great pride. Hopefully events like the Festival of Native Arts and their drum circle with the 4 day sober rule can help them.

All I can say is that I felt privileged to be able to get a glimpse into their culture and traditions.

1 comment:

Lori said...

That was fabulous. Thank you so much for sharing that. I loved it more than I can say.