No one thinks of how strong the sun hits the edge of the Arctic. Instead, they ask about polar bears and igloos. They first imagine the vast emptiness, the wide open spaces of land barely touched. Then, they think of the money and finally the hungry people.
Even I find myself blind to the malnourished culture around me. It wasn't until I shared a piece of chocolate with a poor schoolgirl in Belize that I realized I had never done the same for the impoverished kids of my community. Something about belonging to America made me feel superior, like she was lucky to have me around. The seniority fleeted once I stepped back on a ship to be surrounded by Americans.
That night, I stayed up late thinking about the poor schoolgirl. I thought about her starving eyes looking at me and seeing a privileged woman with lighter skin and free chocolate. She would have never guessed that I grew up in a position like hers, too. The tourists that I eagerly stared at as a young girl were much older, usually wrinkled with age, and I've always wondered why they waited so long to experience the midnight sun. I spent every summer day looking forward to meeting these outsiders. Just like me, they traveled miles and miles to smile with awe at the poor people living on beautiful land.
As a kid performing Eskimo dances at the NANA Museum, I met hundreds of different people from around the world. All I had to do was crawl out of bed by two in the afternoon and bike to the end of 3rd Street where tourists were fascinated by me. Even with a growling stomach, I would put on my best Eskimo personality and eagerly present myself. What they didn't realize was that I was a tourist, too. When they finished asking about my lifestyle, I questioned them about where they came from. I mapped the world outside of Kotzebue in my head and could only imagine what it looked like beyond the tundra hills. I yearned for the day this map wouldn't be a piece of my imagination, but a story to tell when I came back home.
Almost a decade later, here I am ready to write stories about traveling 12 countries, attending college in Idaho and even living in Los Angeles. I open my mouth but before the words can come out, I realize that being an Eskimo performer has transitioned into a piece of imagination. The world as I see it had taken a pivotal turn; I became the traveling tourist, and being a dancer was just a story to tell.
The tourism era for Kotzebue ended when the NANA Museum was torn down and later replaced by today's Heritage Center. Along with that, we slammed the brakes on spending summer days teaching community kids how to Eskimo dance. I still remember the first summer of not having a place to run to and feeling like a part of me was empty. I picked up pop-cultural habits to fill the void; the CD player replaced the Eskimo drum, and I got my dancing fix on the weekends listening to hip-hop music. The other night I felt lucky to catch an hour of dancing at the fairgrounds when just 10 years ago, I woke up every morning expecting to spend my entire day practicing and performing.
We hear plenty of stories about when the missionaries arrived and prohibited traditional song and dance. We listen to our elders speak of being emotionally damaged and too afraid to participate. We have even witnessed a rise in Eskimo dancing, in which villages reclaim their cultural dances. But today I question the history we are writing for the next generation. I am asking myself if I am a part of the generation that actually chooses to give up Eskimo dancing. Looking back on the past 10 years, it seems to be true. It seems as if we are slowly losing the grip on one of our proudest cultural aspects. We've simply forgotten to teach the kids our stories for a decade and because of that, we may soon forget the stories ourselves.
Lately I've been finding myself sharing the tales of being a kid performer as if they happened hundreds of years ago. I have begun speaking of "the good ol' days" like they are out of reach. Instead of talking to my hometown friends about where I've been the past three years, I tell them about where I was as a child: just down the street learning how to Eskimo dance.
We can sustain our traditional songs and dances by giving today's youth a place to spend their summer days and providing cultural entertainment. We can patch up the damage we've created and make up for 10 years of dramatically cutting numbers. We can nourish our culture with the richness of our past. The tourism business is up and running in Kotzebue again and we should be giving them shows to tell their hometown friends about. We should be saving these dances because they are one of the last things we have to connect us with our ancestors.
Jacqui Lambert was born and raised in Kotzebue, Alaska, and is 21 years old. She is attending the University of Idaho with a Psychology major to become a therapist. Jacqui is the co-founder of the MISS Movement, an organization that aims to eliminate sexual violence and rape culture through exploration of identity. She is the daughter of Harold and Jaime Lambert and Paulette Schuerch.
The preceding commentary was first published by The Arctic Sounder and is published here with permission. views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.
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