Rural Alaska

Point Hope dancers honor late hunter during Quyana Alaska in Anchorage

Aaron Tyler Milligrock

Three members of the Tikigaq Dancers stomped and sang, glowing in purple light onstage in a crowded downtown Anchorage ballroom. They faced one another and reached into the center, up to the ceiling and toward a photo of a dancer who completed their circle but joined only in spirit.

The dance, performed during the Quyana Alaska gathering at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention, paid spontaneous and emotional tribute to Aaron Tyler Milligrock of Point Hope, who died in August while on a caribou hunt.

“The powerfulness of it but then the joy that we had — that was him,” Tikigaq dancer Jeff Kinneeveauk said. “Powerful person but very joyful, happy and wanting to do his best because he knew what it meant for the community.”

“It was so good to dance for him but it was hard at the same time,” Jalen Cannon said. “To perform and dedicate it to him means so much to our group, but not only our group — to our community. He meant so much to all of us.”

Milligrock, just 24, died trying to cross the Kukpuk River on a four-wheeler, his sister Taylor Milligrock said.

“We lost him to our river,” said Milligrock, who was also an emergency responder on scene. “Every day we think of him. Every day it’s hard not to think of him, really hard.”

‘The heart of our group’

Milligrock spent most of his days fishing, whaling and hunting for caribou, seals and polar bears. Without asking for anything in return, he shared his harvest with his family, Point Hope widows, elders and youth who cannot hunt.

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“My son was a good kid who helped anybody and was always trying to hunt something that people here like to eat,” said Milligrock’s father, Howard Stone Jr. “He was my son and my best friend.”

Besides being a generous giver, Milligrock growing up “always had a smile on his face and liked to make people laugh,” family friend Eli Booth said.

One of Milligrock’s closest friends, Aaron Mitchell, remembered him always finding time for a joke or a song.

Mitchell first met Milligrock when he was dancing as a child during Kivgiq, a celebratory winter festival in Utqiaġvik. On Sept. 19, the day that would have been Milligrock’s 25 birthday, Mitchell had a newborn. He gave his son Milligrock’s Inupiaq name, Tigluk.

“He was the heart of our group,” Mitchell said. “One of a kind.”

As adults, Mitchell said, the two bonded while fixing vehicles together or hunting. In storms or snowy weather, they would go out to the country, and Milligrock was able to stay composed, focused and aware of his surroundings despite the challenges.

“One time we were traveling by snowmachine from another village back to Point Hope,” Mitchell said. “All I could see was a little red light behind Aaron, and that’s what I was following. And we saw polar bear tracks. It was so stormy I couldn’t see 5 feet in front of me, with the wind blowing, the snow blowing.

“He was an avid hunter,” Mitchell added, “and he enjoyed it so much he wanted to be out there every chance he got.”

Aaron Tyler Milligrock

In the past two years, Milligrock’s parents started a whaling crew, and Milligrock landed a bowhead each season.

For Kinneeveauk, this became a dear memory: Milligrock offering his first whale harvest to him and other residents. That day, Kinneeveauk said, he knew that Milligrock could be counted on to care for the Point Hope community.

“When they caught a whale, that’s the first time I cried” after a successful hunt, Kinneeveauk said. “It brought us joy, that this guy is going to be our leader.”

The dance

The Tigikaq Dancers honored hunting and whaling as they remembered Milligrock.

First, four women — Milligrock’s girlfriend, Leanne Henry, and three sisters, Taylor Milligrock, Patricia Stone and Delia Stone — performed their family dance that tells a story of catching a whale.

That dance comes from his grandparents, Howard and Delia Stone, who inspired Milligrock’s passion and aptitude for dance starting at age 6.

Later, three hunters spontaneously stepped forward with Milligrock’s picture. Their dance has been passed down for generations, Kinneeveauk said. During one of the hunts, Kinneeveauk, Cannon and Milligrock decided to try performing it with four people instead of two.

“Me, Aaron and Jalen were out on the ice, waiting for the whale, and we were talking about it: Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?” Kinneeveauk said.

The group debuted their dance variation at Kivgiq to a great reception. During the AFN convention, the dancers felt that to continue performing this dance, they needed to have Milligrock with them.

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“His picture was there because if he was here, he would be onstage with us, doing this dance,” Kinneeveauk said. “It just felt so natural and it felt so right.”

The dance was a surprise to everyone, including Taylor Milligrock and Mitchell, who were on stage.

“I got a little lump in my throat for a little moment but I tried to enjoy it like he would tell me to enjoy it,” Mitchell said.

“I felt so emotional. It was hard. But it was awesome at the same time because they were dedicating it to my brother. It was very powerful,” she said, “like it was healing, it was healing us.”

The audience responded to an expressive performance with applause, tears and request for an encore.

“The songs that the Point Hope did, it was powerful,” said Mary Lum Patkotak from Utqiaġvik. “You could just feel the honor and respect for the great loss. It was a beautiful thing to watch.”

When Kinneeveauk was onstage, he said, he felt like his dance group was there alone.

“I had no idea who’s in the crowd and I didn’t care,” he said. “Like there was no one in the building. Like it was just us with him.”

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But people kept approaching the dancers days after the performance. Many of them didn’t know Milligrock, Kinneeveauk said, but they shared the stories of their loss — a loss of “someone else in their family that they were reminded of.”

“He represents a Native man, a provider, a hunter, a dancer,” Kinneeveauk said. “Whatever community you’re at, there was someone in that community that he represents that probably they’ve lost. … The story is just a community mourning a loss of a provider.”

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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