Dancing in the Stream: a Meditation on Yup’ik Eskimo Dancing

Starting in 1989 I taught in a remote Yup’ik Eskimo and Athabascan Indian Villages in Alaska.

I have been working on a memoir about those years for over half a decade. I sometimes refer to my time in Alaska as spent chasing grizzly bears and being chased by grizzly men.

Now and then, I may post a glimpse from the memoir. Today’s post is a quiet moment from a place of appreciation.

Dancing in the Stream, October 1989

This morning they gathered sticks floating on the Kuskokwim, their skiffs loaded with naked driftwood bound for steam bath fires. I wanted to join them, to see the village from the river, hear the scant Yup’ik voices, read the October sky. They told me, it was too soon. I had to wait.

Tonight four elders sit cross-legged on the floor in the yellow-green fluorescence of the community center. Their drums, lashed hoops of saplings covered with bright fabrics, balance on their knees. The old men carve new beating sticks, the shavings golden feathers on the water-stained rug.

A handful of women file in. Dance fans ruffle as they walk; buff-colored caribou ruff, ready for flight. Dark wolverine parka hoods frame grey hair and deep-set eyes, which don’t look up.

They stand in place waiting for the chant and rhythm of their counterparts on the floor. Knives aside, the men begin to beat on their drums, with closed eyes, beginning the journey.

The women move, birds aligning in flight. They chant. Yup’ik words, I must feel, not know. They flow together, those on the floor, those moving in the air, like a people who have known the same song a long time.

I could say I felt some connection, but that’s too easy. What I felt was a fall and expansion in me, a huge leap of heart – the wonder of being in place…while still desperately trying to understand my place.

In time I understood more about the dance. Dancers must always wear gloves or hold dance fans. Saucer-sized wood or bone forms men’s dance fans from which feathers stick out like fingers. Solid woven grass disks with finger loops and a flattened splay of caribou chest fur radiating from the top are typical of women’s dance fans.

Just as the men’s fans are pointier and more jagged so is their movement compared to the soft flow of the women’s fans and movements. What did this way of dancing say about the difference between men and women? What did it say about the culture?

The Eskimo dance may be the only dance where feet stay still. Originating as prayer, the dance tells a story with dancers moving in unison.

Did these 21st century dancers know the full extent of the literal or metaphorical meaning of the centuries old dance? Or would the meaning change through time and outside influence?

Would the use of 21st century tools and taffeta instead of stones and skins ultimately change the prayer? Change those praying?

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20 thoughts on “Dancing in the Stream: a Meditation on Yup’ik Eskimo Dancing

  1. It’s late here and it has been a long day. My brain is too tired to process most of what you’re saying, so I’ll need to read it again in the morning. I have family in Fairbanks and that drew my initial interest, but this part of what you said broke through my fatigue like an hallelujah chorus and I don’t need to reread the words below to understand.

    ” What I felt was a fall and expansion in me, a huge leap of heart – the wonder of being in place…while still desperately trying to understand my place. ”

    I’m looking forward to reading more.

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    • Elizabeth, thank you. I’m glad something broke through to you. I’d like my posts to be as easy to read as the purifying walks through fields of flowers and by gurgling creeks that you gift in your blog. You give great peace. Thank you, Renee

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  2. A good mental image on its own is provided by the written word and story line; however the added pictures are a nice touch. Well done!

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    • Thank you Andy. That is precisely the writer’s conundrum… to include pictures or not as they may detract from the written word! Thank you for your thoughts. They will guide me on future posts.

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  3. I loved my time in Alaska, getting to know a different way of life. Appreciation for the simple things, the tall bluff grasses, rocky beaches(they were my “sandy” summer beaches) I found it a sign of the times, not to place judgement but it did make me a little sad, to see how mainstream US culture had worked its way into the natural lives and generations of the Yup’ik people. Experiencing this through working as a shop keeper, galley help and occasional set net extra, in a small seasonal fishing camp where three generations of Yup’ik families would meet. All traveling by fishing vessel with their own special names. From the elders who held their traditions and beliefs very strongly but with a loving heart, that you could see through their toothless grins and knowing eyes. To the fathers who have traveled to the lower 48 and attended universities and brought back knowledge to their villages. To the teenagers who begin to expect and defy their ancient customs for acceptance and freedom…they think.
    All this while working my summers to save so I could attend those lower 48 universities when knowledge was right in front of me in the fishing stories, the body language, the land and its pure rugged isolation yet still full of beauty.

    Note to Andy; I love pictures! I look first at photos and then settle in with the word a beautiful complement.

    cheers,
    Rachelle @ caramelizelife.com

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    • Rachelle, I have goosebumps. You slice open the difficulties of cultures in transition so well. Likewise, the wiser, sage perspective that only a few years distance with the experience can bring shows up in this insight: “…when knowledge was right in front of me in the fishing stories, the body language, the land and its pure rugged isolation yet still full of beauty.” With gratitude, Renee.

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  4. My favorite old singing partners memories!!.. I always find your Alaskan stories intriguing!.
    Don’t have to reply.. as you know.. Just had a few minutes today and wanted to read something worthwhile instead of Yahoo news: “kardashians mother worries about her daughter ” blah blah..
    J

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  5. Lovely meditation on Eskimo dance. When I read that Eskimo dancers don’t move their feet, I thought of how that is the reverse (if I’m not mistaken) of Irish (and maybe Scottish?) dance where the body is held stiffly, and the legs and feet move.

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  6. I love your description, very evocative and lyrical – I could really get a sense of the spiritual side of what you saw. And what a wonderful, interesting place to teach…. can’t wait to read more.

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  7. What a wonderful experience that must have been, to take part in the dancing/meditation of the Yup’ik Eskimos. You write about is so lively and presently – I feel I am almost there, and yes, be part of the spiritual moment. I have never been to Alaska, but this definitely increases my desire to go there.

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    • Thank you for joining in this moment. It was indeed transporting! Glad to understand it moved you too the point of wanting to travel there! If so, I’d love to see your images of the place! Your photo insights are stunning! -Renee

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