Last month, the community of Wales, in Western Alaska, hosted one of the biggest Alaska Native dance festivals in the state. 10 groups from around the region and as far as Anchorage flew in to the village over Labor Day weekend, to sing, dance, drum, talk — and heal.
It’s 2 a.m. at the western tip of the Seward Peninsula. The Northern Lights dance outside in the starry autumn sky above the community of Wales, and inside the school gymnasium, the Shishmaref Kigiqtaq Dancers show no signs of letting up, either.
The Wales Kingikmiut Dance Festival is now in its 18th year. It was started in the 1990s, when the Native dance tradition in Wales was revived after decades of absence. This has since grown to be one of the largest Alaska Native dance festivals in the state. It’s a high-energy, late-night celebration of family, community and cultural heritage.
Anna Oxereok is president of the Native Village of Wales, which organizes the festival. Throughout the weekend, she’s running around town and the school, making sure everything goes smoothly. When she has a few moments to talk, she explains the festival is about more than dance:
“To me, it’s a healing process. If you look, they’re visiting,” Oxereok said. “They don’t get to see each other but once a year. A lot of relatives that never see each other are getting to see each other, or meeting our relatives that we didn’t know.”
Across the room, a group of women are singing songs in Inupiaq. Oxereok commented on the significance of this sort of rite of collective memory.
“Our language is so much deeper than the English,” Oxereok said. “We can’t seem to get it across with enough passion in English compared to Inupiaq.”
One of the singing women is Sophie Nothstine, a member of the Anchorage Kingikmiut Singers and Dancers. Nothstine said it was difficult to see her culture suppressed by white missionaries in the 20th century. Dancing, she says, helps overcome some of those negative feelings. She asks not to be recorded, but said, “Coming here makes us feel whole.”
Edward Tiulana, with the King Island Dancers, said he can feel that when he’s performing.
“We have to work together as a partnership,” Tiulana said. “You can’t try to sing over someone. And when you hit that note where everything is in harmony, it’s like … it’s hard to explain.”
But Tiulana tried to put his feelings into words.
“And then, keeping the drumbeat, the heartbeat: I look into my skin on the drum, especially when we really get going, because that vibration — you can see it, and it’s alive, it’s a real thing,” Tiulana said. “When you’re able to reach that level, it’s mystical. It’s like the songs are alive and they take over your body.”
Many of the songs he sings originated in a place that’s been uninhabited for about half a century. King Island lies due south of Wales and northwest of Nome. Tiulana describes it to me:
“It’s like a fortress sticking out the water,’ Tiulana said. “There’s no beach. It’s all huge boulders, and it’s like a mile long and a mile and a half wide.”
Tiulana said in the 1930s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioned a school there but the Lower 48 teachers weren’t cut out for the weather, and the school closed in the 1960s. At that point, families started to move off the island, settling in places around the state.
Tiulana used to live on the island. His grandfather, who started the dance group, began teaching him how to drum when he was five. Today, he lives in Anchorage and works as a dance instructor at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Tiulana said it takes dedication and passion to preserve the tradition.
“I sit there and I listen to recordings all day long, hundreds and hundreds of times — get the song right, to sing it right, just how I’m hearing it,” Tiulana said. “Because some of these old recordings from the 20’s, to listen to those guys: they’re on-point, every single time. No mistakes, their voices are all matching. They’re on that other level. We haven’t even gotten halfway in my generation, so we’re still working to reach that.”
The King Island Dancers is one of the largest groups at the festival, with nearly 15 drummers who fill the gymnasium with thunderous sound. Dancers don traditional head- and arm-pieces and animal masks. One drummer, an older man, closes his eyes, submerged in the song. The group even brings out oars and performs a rowing dance.
Beneath the dances, there’s an undercurrent of mourning — for lost homeland like King Island, and lost community members. The festival is dedicated to three elders and three youth who died in the past year: one elder originally from King Island, the other five all from Wales.
Samuel Johns is visiting the festival to give a keynote talk on his project, Forget Me Not. It started as a Facebook group that helps homeless Alaskans in Anchorage, who are mostly Alaska Native, connect with family around the state.
“I could feel the grief — just from that King Island over there,” Johns said. “I looked at it, and I was like, man, something about that island over there. And then I asked the lady, ‘Where’s King Island at?’ and she pointed right at that island. And then the first thing she says to me is, ‘I’m from Little Diomede. You want to know the history of Wales?’ And she starts talking to me about historical trauma. I’m like, ‘You’re reading my mind right now.’”
Johns said his work is very much motivated by that trauma.
“For the last 10,000 years, my people have had a sustainable way of life, and we were fine, we survived,” Johns said. “And then, out of nowhere, contact happens. I mean no disrespect to anyone’s religion, but as soon as the religion came in and we were forced to lose our identity, that’s when things started happening to my people — alcoholism, diabetes, drug addiction, the list goes on and on. Those things didn’t even exist. We never even had words for any of those things. That means something. So now, now is the time for me to do what I can do to help bring culture back into our lives.”
Johns said doming here gives him hope for the future.
“It’s beautiful seeing that they still have this festival going on,” Johns said. “It’s beautiful seeing that people are still walking around here with kuspuks on, and they’re drumming and singing inside right now in the school, probably the same school where, once upon a time, they told them they weren’t allowed to drum and sing.”
Throughout the festival, the younger generation seems energized by the tradition. A young boy from King Island, no older than 4 or 5, dons armpieces and dances with the men. The Wales Kingikmiut Dancers are a young group: maybe half of them are under 25. And in all the groups, children, adults and elders dance together.
Among the many who tell me how crucial the mix of ages is, is Annauk Pollock, also known as Denise. It’s her first time at the festival, where she’s dancing with the Anchorage Kingikmiut. She’s originally from Shishmaref, and many of her family there dance and sing. But she grew up between Utqiagvik, Fairbanks and Massachusetts. After time in Washington, D.C., Pollock moved back to Alaska to work with her native town on facing the effects of climate change.
“After everything I’ve experienced, and all the places I’ve lived or traveled, this is where I feel the most connected,” Pollock said. “What’s most meaningful to me is being connected to my Inupiaq community, speaking the Inupiaq language, and working to protect our lands and our life ways.”
Pollock said that includes preserving the dance tradition, which, for her, has become a source of inspiration.
“I always feel refreshed after going to dance class, and it’s such a great way to begin the week. It feels like I get a lot of energy to go forward with the work I do,” Pollock said. “So in order to keep this going, I think we need to have a lot of young people who are actively working to get resources to continue.”
One such active young person present at the festival is David Miller. He grew up in Teller and has performed with the Teller and Anchorage groups in the past. Now, he lives in Nome, and this year, he was invited to come to Wales with the King Island Dancers. I asked him why he dances.
“I want elders to be proud of me. I want our religion to keep going,” Miller said. “It’s fun, it’s like a sport. You have a dance and you really like it, and before you go up, you’re saying that you’re happy that the song is on right now, because it’s fun. Every dance you perform, it feels like you learn something every time, passed on. You need to know about your ancestors.”
That sense of duty to both past and future, the weight of history, the grief of losing loved ones. Those could overshadow the simple joys of singing, drumming and dancing. But they don’t.
As the golden full moon sets, just off the Cape Prince of Wales, and plunges into the sea, the dance goes on.