Rural Alaska

Utqiagvik children greet first sunshine with traditional dance

After 64 days of darkness, the sun peeked through the clouds above Utqiagvik for the first time this past Saturday. A group of children prepared a traditional dance to greet the first rays.

Utqiagvik students from the Inupiaq Dance Group shared the video of them dancing with the Fred Ipalook Elementary School on Friday, the day before the first sunrise of the year, according to Michelle Pearl Kaleak, who organized the dance group this year.

“You can tell the students were excited,” Kaleak said. “We were all very happy to do this dance to celebrate the sun coming back.”

The dance group students who signed up to learn and practice Inupiaq drumming and dancing came to their first day of practice after the winter break on Jan. 14, and Kaleak showed them a traditional “Welcoming the Sun” dance. The sun was going to return in about a week, and the timing seemed right, she said.

First, Kaleak shared a video with the students, explaining the meaning of the dance and its motions. It showed the late Fannie Akpik dancing with her daughter Robyn Joksic and commenting on each movement.

Dancers stomp with their feet to depict walking in search of new light and make circular movements with their arms to depict the sun, said Jerica Niayuq Leavitt, who learned the dance directly from Akpik.

“With our movements, we are mimicking the sun’s rays,” Leavitt explained. “We start dancing, because we are so happy that the sun is back,” Leavitt said.

The Inupiaq Dance Group – the younger children from the class of 70 students total – practiced the dance about five times and recorded it to share with the school later.

“We will have an assembly on Wednesday afternoon to celebrate and dance together,” she said about the school-wide event at Fred Ipalook Elementary.

The school expects between 475 and 500 children to participate in the dance, said music teacher Jake Calderwood, who is coordinating the event together with Kaleak and Iñupiaq Teachers. The students will be in the gym with classes spaced apart, he said.

Celebration at Iḷisaġvik College

On Saturday, when the sun first rose at Utqiagvik at about 1:25 p.m. for half an hour, the clouds were hiding it from sight. Overcast and stormy weather tampered dance celebrations for many residents, including the group from Iḷisaġvik College in Utqiagvik.

“We wanted to have an event today to welcome the sun back, but then it got postponed due to the blizzardy weather, so we won’t be dancing today,” Leavitt, who is an assistant professor at Iḷisaġvik, said on Monday. “We’ll see how tomorrow’s weather is, and if it’s nice, then we will dance tomorrow.”

Leavitt teaches Iñupiaq Studies at Iḷisaġvik, but welcoming the sun back is not a part of her class. Instead, it is a part of the Iñupiaq Cultural Hour, where students, staff, faculty and whoever at the college wants to join get together for one hour each week to practice dance, create art, listen to guest speakers and attend lessons on various aspects of Inupiaq culture.

“Since the sun is coming back, we held our first Iñupiaq Cultural Hour last week to practice the (Welcoming the Sun) song and dance,” Leavitt said on Monday. “There were students and staff faculty in attendance so that they could all perform together and welcome the sun back.”

The meaning of the song and dance has two versions, Leavitt said. While Akpik taught Utqiagvik residents — including Leavitt — that the dancers are welcoming the sun back with the song, other people – for example, Kaleak – grew up knowing the song as “Bleaching the Sealskin.”

Whichever meaning they choose, Iñupiats have been celebrating the end of the dark months for a long time, said Robin Mongoyak, who was born and raised in Utqiagvik. Traditionally, dancers perform the dance as high up as they can.

“We dance on the rooftops because it’s the highest place one can place themselves to see the sun out in the horizon much better,” Mongoyak said. “Because our environment is so flat.”

To understand the tradition better, Mongoyak suggested to place “your mind a hundred years (back) from today and think how small a community Utqiagvik was, and how small the iglu looked in the winter, with all the snow and snow drifts covering more than half their dwellings.”

“Inside, it is not very bright,” he continued. “Long ago, seal oil lamps were used to heat and light up an iglu. That’s for the whole winter during its darkest days.”

When the sun comes back, the skyline is getting brighter by the day. And when it finally rises just above the horizon, it’s time to go outside and greet it.

Mongoyakg grew up in Utqiagvik in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the lighting in the city wasn’t bright, and everyone played outside. That’s why he said the youth are usually the happiest for the sun to return.

“They jump and play and feel joyful; they dance to express themselves because it’s just the beginning of the daylight coming, more outdoor activities to fulfill,” he said. “It’s a new beginning. A time to start preparing for the months ahead toward summer.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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