Rural Alaska

Iñupiaq dancers from Alaska and Canada unite at Kivġiq in Utqiaġvik

Dressed in blue and purple Atikłuks, two young Wainwright dancers danced impeccably at the center of the room in Barrow High School during Kivġiq last weekend. Ciara Panik, 5, was smiling, 10-year-old Alva Ahvakana Jr. looked focused, and the drums were singing.

“They know their dance moves and they were the last to leave the dance floor,” said Colleen Akpik-Lemen, director of the Iñupiat history, language and culture department at the North Slope Borough. She said she was especially impressed by Alva during the kalukaq, the dance accompanied by the box drum. “He stole the show. He was my most favorite part of the performances for the entire four days.”

Dancers from various North Slope villages — as well as performers from Kotzebue, Shishmaref, Nome and the Inuvik dance group from Canada’s Northwest Territories — performed together at Kivġiq 2023 from Feb. 1 to 4. Each day, hundreds of people filled the Barrow High School gymnasium, Utqiaġvik Mayor Asisaun Toovak said, dancing, visiting, feasting, sharing stories and exchanging their crafts.

“Each village in our North Slope had the opportunity to perform, and they all did amazing,” said Vernon Charles Elavgak with Tagiugmiut Dancers. “Point Hope came out with a surreal show with their women surrounding the floor representing how our women protect our lives and their boys showing how they pass on the new year.”

In the Qikiqtagrukmiut group, about 24 dancers from Kotzebue’s Northern Lights Dancers group as well as Anchorage, came together to perform dances they learned from the Elders of the Northwest Alaska region, as well as other parts of the state and even Russia, said Qikiqtagruk Northern Lights dancer Belynda Gregg.

“Everything about the festival was wonderful,” Gregg said. “Hearing the strong Iñupiaq language spoken again was great; the hospitality; all the hard work they did to make sure we felt at home was wonderful.”

Kivġiq is a biennial event, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the last festival happened in 2019. Since then, many residents have felt isolated, Toovak said.


“Iñupiaq singing, drumming and dancing is very healing for people,” she said. That’s why she said this year’s Kivġiq felt “monumental — the one to remember because we all needed that healing.”

The special moments of this year’s Kivġiq were shared not only by those in the Barrow High School; the feast was also broadcast live on social media. The video livestream was helpful to people who, like Toovak, could not attend the whole event, she said.

“That was my favorite part — being able to go live,” she said. “I have so many family and friends that don’t live here, and it was nice to be able to talk about it or both be online together.”

Kivġiq, or “messenger feast,” is a longtime tradition where Iñupiaq tribes can gather and trade inland subsistence harvest and crafts with their neighbors from coastal areas, Akpik-Lemen said. The leaders of the Utqiaġvik community would call upon the gathering in years when the harvest was abundant, she said. They would first hold a race to find the fastest runners and would send them to other villages carrying a staff with markings to invite their neighbors to Kivġiq.

“That’s why part of our celebration includes a messenger race,” she said.

Kivġiq was discontinued in the early 20th century under missionary pressures, Akpik-Lemen said. Overall, the church considered Iñupiaq dancing a pagan tradition and pushed for secularizing and abandoning traditional Iñupiaq culture, including the messenger feast. In 1988, Kivġiq was brought back to the North Slope by George Ahmaogak Sr.

Mary Lum Patkotak said for her children, who are now between 14 and 25 years old, regularly attending Kivġiq is “all they’ve known.”

“My 25-year-old was shocked when she learned it was brought back in 1988 and not held for a very long time prior to that,” she said. “It’s beautiful that my children have had Kivġiq all of their lives. They know how to celebrate Iñupiaq style, be themselves, express themselves through song and dance and have fun.”

Gift-giving, or maġlak, is another important part of the feast. Traditionally, when someone wants to dance with a person they haven’t seen in many years, they bring a gift to the dance floor — items like furs, wolf and wolverine skins, jewelry and harpoons, Akpik-Lemen said. With the gift in front of them, they perform a dance and then present that gift to the person they are inviting to join them. The person receiving the gift is obligated to dance with the gift giver, Akpik-Lemen said.

“I loved watching the gift-giving and seeing the happiness of giving and receiving gifts,” said Patkotak. “That is always a special part of Kivġiq.”

The visitors were treated to caribou soup, muktuk and a special delicacy: fermented walrus flippers, Akpik-Lemen said.

“We started preparing at least a month before: We sent hunters from our department to go caribou hunting and bring back caribou,” she said. “We also started cutting muktuk and whale meat into small bite-sized pieces well before the event so we were able to share the gift of the whale during the event.”

While preparing for the event involved a lot of work and long days, Akpik-Lemen said it was similar to catching and processing a whale.

“When we catch a whale, we cannot stop with preparing our whale until we are done, from the moment that it is caught until it can go away to the ice cellar in about four to five days,” she said. Preparing for Kivġiq was tiring too, she said, “but it was a good week to fill our soul with helping our residents with all that gathering brings us.”

Besides dance, food and speeches, Kivġiq attendees enjoyed storytelling. On Friday and Saturday mornings, anyone could go up to the mic and tell stories about hunting or other life experiences, Akpik-Lemen said.

The theme of this year’s feast was Iñupiaraaġnaqsiruq, which means “It’s time to speak Iñupiaq.” It was reflected in the master of ceremonies and performers speaking Iñupiaq and was rooted in the hope to make more people, especially youths, fluent in Iñupiaq.

“After four full days, it’s time to say, let’s continue to speak and share the language,” North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower said during the event. “The seal oil lamp and Kivġiq messenger will never run out if you keep them in your heart.”


The number of speakers of Alaska Native languages has been declining over the last several decades. In 2022, there were fewer than 2,500 highly proficient Iñupiaq speakers in Alaska, according to the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council, which provides recommendations and advice to the state Legislature.

As of now, many residents do not speak the language, and those who do are often second-language speakers and are not fluent, Toovak said.

“Our generation, we can spell it perfectly all day; We know exactly where to put the G with the dot, the N with the tail, the N with a brow. … But speaking — it is so hard,” she said. “We have so much respect for the language, it’s scary to make a mistake. And I think what that theme gives us is a little bit of a push — it’s OK to make a mistake, it’s OK. We just got to speak it because we’re gonna lose it.”

Once Kivġiq was revived in 1988, dance groups from each village — often more than one — all performed separately, said Elavgak with Tagiugmiut Dancers. Then in 2017, dance groups from the same village started performing together, he said.

“Up to today, we, dance group leaders, still don’t agree on that because each group has their own special songs and unique sounds and look,” he said. But “we still come together to put a show on for the world to see.”

In Utqiaġvik, there are several active dance groups — including Tagiugmiut and the Barrow Dancers — as well as people who preserve the Nuvukmiut Dancers and Ovluaq Dancers traditions, Elavgak said. Throughout January, the dancers were practicing in the Ipalook Elementary School gym, working together to include all of their songs and to perform the Box Drum Dance.

“It’s always an awesome time to drum with those other dance groups. We have our ups and downs, but in the end, we are all one people,” he said. “It’s not easy. … We have actually improved being united.”

For Elavgak, this year’s Kivġiq took on even greater personal significance: He proposed to his longtime partner and fiancée Rachel Goodwin during the dance performance.


“I had some special feeling run through me Friday afternoon,” he said.

Elavgak called Goodwin’s adoptive and biological parents Friday for their blessing. When Saturday came, and “it was another beautiful day in Utqiaġvik,” he asked his parents and uncles if he could propose during the performance.

“They stood behind me and supported me,” he said.

Elavgak fit his proposal before Tagiugmiut Dancers’ Kalukaq, box drum dance performance, and the moment was even bigger than he expected.

“As I grabbed the mic, it had felt like just another day. But when I started talking I almost ran out of breath and couldn’t believe the moment was happening,” he said. “The energy was immense, the love was there, and everyone was there.”

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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.