Whenever you travel somewhere, you learn something. Sometimes you learn simple things, like showing up at the Barrow airport an hour before the flight leaves means you will probably have to sacrifice your shampoo and cram your bags under your seat because they aren't checking any more bags at that time. Sometimes you learn something deeper, like the feeling of deep respect my friend and I felt after spending most of the week on Alaska's northern coastline.
It's pretty hard to sum up Kivgiq in a few words, but what stood out to me wasn't the continuous stream of dancers, drummers and singers who took the stage over the four-day festival in Barrow. Don't get me wrong, they were amazing, inspiring, athletic and graceful. But it was the flowing crowd around me that really caught my attention.
More than once, I was seated a few feet away from an elder. These men and women took their spot among the crowd and waited - waited for the throngs of people who would come to them, thrust a baby into their hands, hug them, and wish them well. Time and again, I saw teenagers, young parents, older adults, stream up to these elders and offer them recognition and love.
And when an elder got on stage - oh my. I don't think the queen herself could have drawn more applause. Especially the older women, who danced with such passion and grace, it was impossible not to feel the roots of their knowledge spreading out from the dance floor.
I also saw families. I saw young men with babies strapped to their chests taking the dance floor, and youth following their younger siblings around, smiling as their toddling family members navigated the crowd. I saw babies being passed peacefully from one person to another until I really couldn't tell who the parent was. I saw parents patiently loving their sleepy young ones, and grandmas with babies stuffed into their jackets walking the halls. It was beautiful.
I saw a culture that was accepting and welcoming of others, too. Time and again, the people serving us dinner or driving us to and fro were from sunny, warm locations -- Laos, Hawaii, Korea. How they came to be here in Barrow was somewhat of a mystery, but one man said when he finally got ready to move his family south to Anchorage, the children didn't want to leave. They lobbied to stay, saying how expensive the big city would be. Here at the edge of the world, it looked from the outside, anyway, like people from the far corners of the world were welcomed.
And then there was the dancing. I said more than once that I wished I had had an interpreter to explain these dances, based so much on animals and tradition. But while I didn't know the exact meaning, I understood the deep respect this culture had for the animals it has depended on for life for hundreds of years. Every precise hand motion, facial expression, and step spoke to that.
A visit to the Inupiat Heritage Center further solidified that impression. As we wandered among exhibits of artifacts, learning about the importance of traditional whaling techniques, cultural history and the events of the past, our respect for the wisdom of the Inupiat deepened. After all, these were people who had the survived and thrived in the harshest of climates. That takes tenacity and intelligence on a level that is hard to match on a global scale. Even with all our modern technology and equipment, a 40-minute walk outside on a relatively warm, calm day tested my resolve as the cold crept between my layers of warm clothing and ice crusted to my eyelashes.
So more than anything else, spending four days in a gymnasium was an immersion class in the northern culture, an immersion class that left me awe-struck and deeply respectful for a culture and people who have a deeply loving and inclusive culture steeped in togetherness and connection -- both to each other and to the environment in which they live.
Next time, I'll stay longer -- not to mention get to the airport sooner.
Carey Restino is the editor of Alaska Media LLC, which publishes The Arctic Sounder and Bristol Bay Times weekly newspapers.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.