You make me feel so young

Poised at center stage, Vivian Jimmy—age 87—is armed with her five-feathered dance fans, leading her fellow dancers, occasionally relying on the security and support of her walker. In the back row, Raphael Jimmy—age 91 and Vivian's husband of 68 years—paces the male drummers, all dressed in matching blue kuspuks. Together, the 22 members of Kuigpagmiut Dance Group perform songs both ancient and new (including several originals written and choreographed by Raphael).

Raphael and Vivian's enthusiasm—and their obvious dedication—radiates a shared love of dancing. One could assume they fell in love during a dance performance in their youth.

But no, the Jimmys met under much different circumstances. And Kuigpagmiut Dance Group, organized only two years ago, is just the latest chapter in their long lives together.

Before their wedding, neither Raphael nor Vivian were really that interested in getting married. Especially not to someone they just met yesterday.

Both grew up in the same area of the vast Yukon Delta, just outside the village of Nunam Iqua. But despite their proximity, the two didn't meet until Raphael arrived at Vivian's school for a wedding arranged by their mothers.

At the time, Vivian was in Akulurak, the Jesuit mission that later became the village of St. Mary's. When she turned 16, the mission priest started asking when she intended to marry. She was completely uninterested.

"I said 'Noooo,'" she laughed, eyes widening. The priest persisted, yet she resisted, fixed on becoming a nun. "Then I got tired one time and I said, 'Yeah,'" she sighed.


Meanwhile, back near Nunam Iqua, Jimmy's mom was pursuing the same subject. Raphael, for his part, wasn't keen on marriage either. At 23 years old, he had three dogs, a .22 rifle and a new 5-horsepower motor. Why would he need a wife? "I don't want to get married. It was too early," he said. "But I couldn't say no because I respect my mom and my dad. If they need something, I have to do it, no matter what."

One day, Raphael's mother delivered some life-changing news—he would be married to a girl in Akulurak. Oh, and they'd be leaving tomorrow on a seven-hour boat ride with the girl's mother. "I didn't sleep good," Raphael recalled of that night.

Departing the next morning in his freshly laundered clothes, he got ready to meet his bride at the Jesuit mission, built on an island between two arms of the Yukon River. The boat docked as dusk settled in, postponing the wedding for another restless night.

On Friday morning, Aug. 29, 1947, Vivian was in her Sunday dress in the school's sewing room, along with two female classmates. Raphael remembers the moment he opened the sewing room doors, seeing Vivian for the first time—as well as her two friends. "When I see her, I was thinking, 'I wonder who's going to be my wife?'" he laughed. "Because I don't know. I'd never seen her."

They were married that afternoon in a small chapel—no rings, no veils, only schoolchildren in the audience. After the ceremony, their mothers, waiting outside, boarded the boat and left them to their lives together.

Despite their hesitations, they've become quite a pair over the past 68 years.

The Jimmys returned to Nunam Iqua—then called Sheldon's Point—to start a family. Their first child arrived during hunting season, when they were alone in a tiny house at an isolated camp. As Vivian went into labor, Raphael stood outside the bedroom door. A strange noise suddenly started—a sharp, severe rattle that grew louder as his wife's wails escalated. After a moment of confusion, he realized he was the sound; Raphael, about to deliver his first child, had been trembling hard enough to shake the teakettle atop the wood stove.

Baby Stan was the first of their 12 children (the next two kids also arrived at hunting camp). As the family expanded, the Jimmys moved to larger villages—Emmonak, Chuloonawick—to be nearer to schools (and, coincidentally, Yup'ik dance groups). But high schools were rare in Western Alaska, and the oldest kids flew 1,000 miles away to Wrangell, returning in summers speaking English and boasting of strange awards like Boy Scout badges. Eventually, the family moved to Mountain Village so the youngest kids could attend high school near home.

Though they had family in town, their new home lacked one key element. "When we moved, there was nobody dancing down in Mountain Village," Raphael recalled, and for several years, all was quiet. Then the Jimmys got restless. Raphael hiked to an elder's home to ask permission to start a new dance group. He found the old man, the last living member of the town's prior dance group, slouched in his small home outside of town. The man immediately jumped to life at the idea of restarting a dance group in Mountain Village.

For years, Raphael and Vivian danced and drummed in Mountain Village as their family flourished with grandkids (30) and great-grandkids (38 and counting). But as age set in, the couple moved away from the Yukon in 2011 and into their daughter's home in Anchorage. Surrounded by framed photos of the past five generations, Raphael had become the old man slouched in his home, removed from the dance.

Soon enough, Vivian and Raphael again grew restless. So in 2014, they started their own dance group, naming it Kuigpagmiut (a Yup'ik word meaning "People of the Big River"). The Jimmys—born near the Yukon's mouth, married in an island chapel midstream, raising many kids in many villages along the banks—are certainly people of the river. Though now in Anchorage, the Delta's cultures and traditions have defined the Jimmys since the first boat ride that brought them (reluctantly) together.

Raphael and Vivian are no longer as mobile and energetic as they once were, but watch them perform and it's clear their enthusiasm hasn't waned. To see them in action, with younger generations on either side, is to understand the rejuvenating power of drumming and dance. With the energy of their younger selves, these elders continue to perform after 68 years together.

"Old people, when they dance, they think of nothing but fun," Vivian said.

"When I am Eskimo dancing, I forget all about [health concerns], just fun only," Raphael added. "I only think of dancing and laughing, all the time smiling. I never worry. Every time."

J. Besl is a writer at the University of Alaska Anchorage. You can find him at the bus stops and bike lanes of Anchorage.

This article appeared in the February 2016 issue of 61°North, a publication of ADN's special content department. Contact 61°North editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.