Point of View: Caring, community and dance

How does a community care for its people?

Many cultures have designed methods and ways to care for its people. While our school systems do not address that type of learning, I want to share my experience of what happened for me at ‘Native’ dances, particularly with the Inupiat/Indigenous Dance in this essay.

To give a background, I was born in Nome, Alaska. Some of my siblings and I were taken away and sent to live in a non-Native culture where nothing relating to our culture was allowed. Moving my feet in a certain way or talking to each other in our language was forbidden. My culture was lost to me and my siblings. I desperately wanted to be with my family, know who I was, who my people were and why it was so bad to be Inupiaq.

So, when I turned 40 something, I started exploring. I started attending mixed cultural Pow Wows, the only Native events near me. At first it was awkward to be present with other Natives, because I was afraid of being sinful for exposing myself to unchristian like influences. I was amazed, how beautiful it was. Whole families were participating, many in their regalia. The dances involved everyone who wanted to dance and participate. It took a while to get used to the different style of songs and drumming. I gradually learned and sang some of them with a drum group.

It didn’t matter who was present. Everyone was accepted for who they were.

I went on to learn Inupiaq dances, read stories, interviewed other Indigenous peoples as well as actively learning from other Alaska Native and Indigenous people how important it was for them to express pride in who they are, their culture, proudly displayed with the dance and daily way of being.

I joined the Northwest Inupiat Dancers, with my husband, Larry. We were part of the founding members in 1991. Our dance troupe is a family group where we learned traditions, pride in who we are and passed those values on to our children.

In the area where I come from, northern Alaska, dancing our stories happens in gatherings, like Kivgik honoring the passing of the whale and creatures harvested throughout the year after the first light in February and Nalukatuk after the spring whaling. Both events follow traditional ceremony with thanking the Creator/Great Spirit/God for providing for us and celebrating with dancing. That way healthy families and communities grow and strengthen in the Inuit/Inupiat way.

At first, learning our traditional dances was hard. I fought my prejudice against my own people and culture. Growing up, I was not allowed to socialize with people of color. Then, I had problems overcoming my clumsiness and difficulty memorizing the songs; they were evil somehow. I admit, I still miss a step in the dance. Maybe it is part of the dance.

The Inupiat, northern people of Alaska, dances were family composed, songs, stories of community, personal stories, the drama of life living a subsistence lifestyle flavored with good-natured joking. There is nothing like Native humor! I still love seeing the goofy fun dances, the really good dancers, and the children in their regalia dancing right along with everyone else.

It is clear to me that the Native community gatherings and celebrations with dancing, are building healthy communities and leaves one feeling good.

In Inupiat cultural gatherings, Ceremony starts the Dance and reigns throughout the gathering, making it a Spiritual time, in the Inupiat way. The sharing of one’s own songs, abilities and humor, in a good atmosphere offers support and “the gift of each other.”

In the community at large and gatherings like this in any culture, these used to be common things. Where I lived and live, good times like these are hard to find.

Today, I feel I am a better person because of The Dance.

With grant support from RURAL CAP/ Thriving Communities, Bunnell Street Arts Center is pleased to present a series of workshops in 2023-2024 to spark joy, health and healing for people living around Kachemak Bay.

Inupiat Dance Demonstration/ Workshop

Saturday, Aug. 19, 5-7 p.m. at Bunnell Street Arts Center

With Larry and Donna Ahvakana

The workshop features a slide presentation on Inupiat dance and visual art, and a dance class. It is free and open to everyone.

Lawrence R. “Ulaaq” Ahvakana is exhibiting his sculpture and prints at Bunnell Street Arts Center Aug. 4-Sept. 5.

An internationally noted artist, Ahvakana studied art at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, the College of Santa Fe Teaching, Copper Union School of Art and Rhode Island School of Design.

He is from Tigiraq/Point Hope and Utqiagvik, Alaska. His wife Donna, who is also Inupiat, was raised in Homer. They recently moved back. The Ahvakanas will share their knowledge of Inupiat dance as members of the Northwest Inupiat Dancers, which they co-founded in 1991.

“This family group learned traditions, pride in who we are and passed those values on to our children,” Donna Ahvakana says.