Kyushu University: Indigenous dancers in blue jeans

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Upon hearing a tambourine drum, villagers on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea in the Arctic hurry to the community hall. Dressed in jeans and T-shirts, they begin to dance, accompanied by drummers’ vocables singing.

In the local Yupik language, the traditional dance event is called ‘atuq,’ and it can happen spontaneously at any time of the day. Dancing on St. Lawrence Island is part of everyday life. Villagers grew up with atuq and learned it without formal instruction.

Over 1,000 km away—but still in Alaska—Iñupiat in Utqiaġvik also perform Indigenous dances, though the setting could not be more different. Learned through formal training as “Barrow Dancers,” they present their well-coordinated dances in Indigenous style of uniformed regalia on special occasions like heritage festivals.

Professor Hiroko Ikuta, an anthropologist at Kyushu University’s International Student Center, lived among these two maritime Indigenous communities in Alaska from 2005 and 2007 to explore the ways in which Indigenous dance occupies a special place in the lives of Alaskan Natives and why it appears in such contrasting ways in the two communities.

“I knew that tradition is always defined in the present in relation to the past. But I was wondering why different groups of people choose different aspects of culture as their tradition, and what they mean by tradition,” says Ikuta.

Drummers in Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island (Photo by Hiroko Ikuta)
After two decades of living in Alaska, Ikuta has come to understand that an important traditional value Indigenous peoples perpetuate through dance is sociability.

“As long as dancing completes the task of caring for each other and attending to the wisdom of the Elders, be it ‘atuq’ on St. Lawrence Island or ‘Eskimo dance’ by the Iñupiat Barrow Dancers, both are tradition. From the Indigenous point of view, what matters is what these dances accomplish and not how they accomplish it.”

Ikuta lived in Alaska from 1999 to 2016, which includes time working in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She recalls these experiences in her recent book, The Sociality of Indigenous Dance in Alaska: Happiness, Tradition, and Environment among Yupik on St. Lawrence Island and Iñupiat in Utqiaġvik.

Her main field site was St. Lawrence Island, a 90-mile-long island just 40 miles from the Russian mainland that is home to a community of approximately 1,400 Yupik people. The other community she studied is Utqiaġvik, the northernmost human settlement on the American Continents, with a population of about 4,500 Iñupiat.

Over the last century, Indigenous peoples of Alaska have negotiated their place in the world with powerful outside forces, starting with the Yankee whalers in the late nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries, and the federal and state governments. The Protestant missionaries and Anglo-European settlers saw Indigenous dance as heathen practices. Under the assimilation policies by the government during the colonial period (1890s–1960s), Indigenous dance practice went underground.

“The discovery of oil in 1968 brought petroleum companies to the region. That’s when the paths taken by Yupik and Iñupiat greatly diverged economically,” says Ikuta.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 was probably the most important political and economic development for the Alaskan Natives during the last century. The contrasting choices that the two Indigenous communities made regarding land rights has greatly impacted their contrasting dispositions toward Indigenous dance.

Following the ANCSA of 1971, Iñupiat in Utqiaġvik chose cash economy and wage labor like almost all other Indigenous communities in the rest of Alaska, while Yupik on St. Lawrence Island chose ownership of the entire Island, forgoing any cash settlement or participation in the regional corporation system.

In her office at Kyushu University, Ikuta found a photo of a grizzly bear in one of her many Alaska albums.

She says, “During the Last Age, the Bering Sea was a grassland and people walked from the Old World to the New World. Since the Sea is still so shallow, this Russian grizzly bear walked across the continent on sea ice during the winter of 2005 and reached St. Lawrence Island, where there are only polar bears. Something like this happens once in a person’s lifetime because currents and winds of the Bering Sea are extremely strong and sea ice has never been stable even in winter.”

“The Sea is so shallow that I could fish for sculpins with this. Sculpins are quite easy to catch. I caught more than forty in one hour!”

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