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?