In Interior, Native Fiddling is a Tradition
Gwich'in Athabascan fiddle music and dancing dates to 1800s
FAIRBANKS - For Gwich’in Athabascan fiddlers, music is a universal language. Like their Native language, it’s passed down through the spoken word.
“We don't read music; I don't read music. We just play by heart,” said Bill Stevens, who’s been playing the fiddle for more than 60 years.
His ancestors have been fiddling before Alaska was even a territory. Hudson Bay fur trappers brought the music to the Fort Yukon area in 1847.
“The first Christmas ball happened in Fort Yukon in 1847. That's the first time the fiddle got to us and the Gwich'in people loved the fiddle,” said Pete Petr, a fiddle player and drummer.
It’s not just fiddle music the people fell in love with, but the dancing that came with it. Like many oral traditions, though, some dances were in danger of fading away. Elders were determined to keep them alive.
“It's a good feeling because it was sort of dying a few years ago and we brought it back. Some of the dances they didn't do but we brought those back also. So the younger people are dancing, especially the double jig. That was gone and we brought it back,” said Stevens.
While it was the older Athabascans who were eager to hit the dance floor, the younger generation wasn’t about to be left out of the fun. Kids and teenagers wearing sneakers danced alongside elders in traditional footwear.
“Just ordinary teenagers, because we're Athabascan and it's our tradition and we've been doing it and our parents have been doing it and they grow into it too. They just love the jig and all that,” said Stevens.
The dancing continued well into the night and the kids’ enthusiasm for the customs ensure fiddling is one tradition that will continue on for generations to come.