The Arctic Sounder

Barrow Whalers boys basketball takes 4th at state and shares Inupiaq dancing with the crowd

Besides taking fourth at this week’s state tournament, the Barrow Whalers boys basketball team had another chance to take the spotlight: They performed Iñupiaq dancing during halftime for the semifinal game of the 3A girls tournament.

The Barrow boys team lost to Valdez in a tight 34-31 game Wednesday. Then they won against Fairbanks’ Hutchison High, 53-35, and prevailed in their final game of the tournament by defeating Seward 66-44.

“I’m proud that we came together after the loss on Wednesday,” freshman Alex Fruean said. “We didn’t jump our heads. We picked it up. And we just moved forward, fighting adversity.”

The boys showed great defense and offense in their last game, getting easy buckets at the rim and shooting from the 3-point line, head coach Wyman Ipalook said.

“We just worked well playing as a team, we knew what was working, and we kept attacking,” Ipalook said.

In the second period, the team slowed down and lost the lead, but they picked it up and advanced after halftime.

“We stepped it up. We sure did play like a team in the second half,” Barrow senior Sasita Unutoa said. “I liked that. It was really fun.”


The day before their last game, Barrow boys came to support the girls at the semifinal game. During halftime, they stepped on the court and performed several Inupiaq dances.

With drummers giving them the beat, the boys stomped their feet and threw their hands up, making the walls of the Alaska Airlines Center reverberate and the crowd turn their necks to watch the dancers.

“Being able to show our traditional dancing in front of a big crowd is a very special thing and a very good feeling,” Unutoa said after the performance.

Their first dance was Polar Bear Shake, a common dance shared among several Iñupiaq communities, Barrow High School Iñupiaq teacher David Elavgak said. The dance represents a polar bear, most likely digging a den, he said. The second dance, Wax On, Wax Off, comes from motions of waxing the drums, he said.

The idea to perform the dance came from the boys, coach Ipalook said.

“They wanted to be there and they wanted to do the dance, and they wanted to show off the culture,” he said. “They’re so talented, and, I mean, the crowd goes crazy for them, so it’s great. They love the culture and the land that they come from, and they pay respect to it every time they can.”

The boys first approached Elavgak before the invitational games, asking for someone to drum and sing for them. Many of the boys grew up in Utqiaġvik, taking Iñupiaq classes until fifth grade and learning to dance.

“That feeling you get when you dance, it carries on with the students as they grow up,” Elavgak said.

The boys practiced the dances they remembered and performed them, first during the regionals. Then, they brought the show to the state championship.

“We’re bringing our culture to the forefront of the things that we participate in as a community,” Elavgak said. “That sense of community — they wanted to bring that here with them. ... They just wanted to show the world that it’s happier to be proud to be Indigenous, to show where you come from.”

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.