AK: Alaska Native Dancing Tradition

Greg Nothstine is second from left. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, KNBA - Anchorage)
Greg Nothstine is second from left. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage)

Over the past several decades, there’s been a renaissance in Alaska Native traditional dancing. KNBA’s Joaqlin Estus recently visited with one of the founders of an Inupiaq dance group in Anchorage, who told her about his personal journey toward tradition

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“Hey, I forgot your name. Allison. Allison! Good to see you again.”

Greg Nothstine hesitates to say he’s a dance group leader, but he is a founder of Kingikimiut, which means “people of the high bluff,” after the original name of Wales, a village in Northwest Alaska.

King Island is about 45 miles from Wales. Nothstine says long before he thought about forming a dance group, the late Paul Tiulana, of the King Island dance group, would call on him to dance at performances in Anchorage:

“He would look at me and say, ‘Ungwunm. This is a Wales song. You got to claim it. Come out here.’ He said, ‘Anytime you recognize a song from your village,’ – course I didn’t know it was from my village at the time – ‘you’re supposed to come up and claim it. You supposed to dance. That’s protocol. If you don’t claim it, you’ll lose it.’”

Nothstine is named after his grandfather, which in the Inupiaq view means his grandfather’s soul is supporting him, almost as a reincarnation. The family didn’t know where his grandfather was buried, though, until Nothstine was in his early 30s. He says a visit to the grave inspired him. He asked Tiulana if he could practice with the King Island dancers.

“He just smiled at me and he said ‘when I was a boy, we used to travel to your mom’s village of Wales. And I was maybe two-three years old and I used to get in the bow of the kayak and that was a real fun time for us kids. We’d go to your Mom’s village. We’d go to the Qargi. The women were graceful. The men were real powerful singers and drummers. Wow, that was a real wonderful time. Hey, I bet, you know what, if you go ask those elders who are still alive back in your Mom’s village, maybe they still remember some songs,’” Nothstine said.

More than half the residents of Wales died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, though, so it wasn’t clear how many Wales elders would knew traditional songs. But Nothstine and his mother and a friend traveled there with a borrowed video camera. Enough elders did know songs. The group used the videos to learn, and the group grew. Nothstine vividly remembers their first performance, at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks some twenty years ago.

(Photo by Joaqlin Estus, KNBA - Anchorage)
(Photo by Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage)

“I was really singing my heart out. My aunt was sitting next to me. And I must have miscued. It’s real easy, you miscue and you keep singing the other stanza. And she looks to me. She grabs my shoulder and my arm and says real loud, ‘Not. Like. That!’ It’s right in front of everybody. And I’m trying to drum at the same time,” Nothstine said.

He says the group finished their performance as gracefully as they could:

“You have a couple of those experiences, and some people will say ‘never again, never again, never again.’ But we said ‘Okay, well, that’s the price of admission for reclaiming your songs.’ You just have to wade through some of these unknown areas and pitfalls and just keep going,” he said.
Nothstine says Kingikimiut now regularly performs at different events – they’ll soon perform at an elder’s birthday party. He says he’d like to see dance groups become an even bigger part of community life: “There were songs that were used to be sung when married couples got married, when someone was successful at a hunt, or built a new boat, or a baby was born, or some significant aspect of life that happened that happened to a whole bunch of people that they wanted to keep in memory, we don't do that as much anymore,” he said. [caption id="attachment_126247" align="aligncenter" width="600"](Photo by Joaqlin Estus, KNBA - Anchorage) (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, KNBA - Anchorage)[/caption] Heidi Senungetuk was a professional violinist with the Anchorage Symphony and other orchestras, and always wanted to learn more about the music of her father’s people, who are from Wales. She’s now a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology. Senungetuk says dance group members enjoy the music, dancing, and sense of community – and are making a statement. “People are trying to say, 'We are here. We're still here. And it's okay to be who we are,’ rather than what so many people have experienced in Alaska, which is 'you're not good enough as a Native person' or the whole colonial thought, which is, 'get out of the way, we need your land,'” Senungetuk said. At the rehearsal, Nothstine told the 30-some participants it was the last practice before his daughter Ravynn left for college at Dartmouth. He and his mother and his two children danced the seal hunting dance together, a family favorite.