Frontiers 103: Time to Dance Again
This week’s show, “Time to Dance Again,” is about the power of community — the embodiment of that Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…”
This week we take you to Old Harbor on the southeast end of Kodiak Island, a fishing village of about 220 people.
About six years ago, during a visit to Old Harbor, I watched a group of students meet for Alutiiq dance practice. The young people clearly enjoyed it. Since they were new to dance, the moves were still not part of their muscle memory, as it is with dancers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta — or on the North Slope — where the tradition continues to be passed from one generation to another.
In Old Harbor, it wasn’t easy to bring back Alutiiq dance. There are few elders on Kodiak Island who remember the tradition, so that meant reaching out to other cultures.
In 2008, a group of Old Harbor students and elders traveled to the Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel to get ideas on how their ancestors, the Sugpiaq, might have celebrated with dance. At Cama-i, they saw dance groups from all over southwest Alaska showcased — and something else.
It struck Melissa Berns, one of the Old Harbor dance leaders, that Cama-i was not a series of dance performances, but much more. Subsistence foods were shared, along with classes on cultural knowledge. The seed was planted. Berns and other leaders from the Old Harbor Alliance, made up of representatives from several community groups, began to plan for the first ever, regional Alutiiq dance festival to be held in Old Harbor.
The challenge was daunting. Old Harbor has several hundred years of Russian colonialism in its history – which hastened the loss of Sugpiaq, or Alutiiq, language and culture. Today, there are relatively few speakers compared to the Yup’ik in southwest Alaska, where outside influences came much later.
Fast forward to March, 2017. We arrived in Old Harbor in the midst of a whirlwind of preparations for a dance festival, years in the making.
We watched students, taking part in a mask workshop, put the finishing touches on masks they have created, with the help of Drew Michael, a Yup’ik mask maker. Women sewed late into the night to finish regalia for the Old Harbor dancers. Men gathered clams from the beach to make chowder for the community feast.
All that was needed was good weather — to bring dance groups from as far away as Cordova to Old Harbor, which at this time of the year can only be accessed by airplane.
Suddenly fog became a problem — a symbol, perhaps, of how the fog of memory and time is a constant battle in cultural preservation.
We hope in this week’s episode of Frontiers you’ll be inspired by Old Harbor’s efforts to revive dance. Berns said it’s important to have new traditions, as well as old ones, so you have to start somewhere.
Here are some of this week’s highlights:
- Dance Festival Preparations: It takes a lot of work to change the course of history. And people in Old Harbor are definitely not afraid of that. From headdresses made out of bear hide for the boys to elaborate beaded caps for the girls — all infused with love — it was amazing to watch it all come together. And there was also a community mask, in which everyone at the festival was invited to make his or her mark.
- Time to Dance Again: The fog finally lifts and dancers from several communities arrive, not everyone that was invited, but enough to declare this gathering the first “regional” dance festival. And we learn the fate of the community mask: what was to become of it after the final dance of the festival?
- Featured Guests: We turn to Bethel’s Cama-i festival for our guests. Linda Curda, a longtime organizer and volunteer, joins us, along with Steve Blanchette, a member of the group Pamyua. Steve also works at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Our guests reminded us that Cama-i, when it first began in 1989, was struggling to preserve Yup’ik dancing. At that time there were fewer and fewer younger dancers, which put the future of dance in doubt.
But through hard work of a committed group of people across the region, dancing has come back stronger than ever. Today, there are dance groups from communities in which it had almost disappeared.
So we come full circle to Old Harbor.
Today, the students dance like their culture never stopped dancing. They have members of the Old Harbor Alliance to thank — leaders who believed that dance could be restored to their community.
It was such a joy for me to see the progress of the dancing after watching Old Harbor students years ago. Those kids are now young adults, who will someday pass on this tradition to their children.
The people in Old Harbor can be proud that they’ve nursed a tiny spark of culture into a steady, burning fire, a place where others can gather to light a torch and carry it home.