Last in a series about life on St. Lawrence Island.
SAVOONGA — The shopworn city building in one of the westernmost communities on Earth transforms every Sunday night into a place for dancers and drummers of all ages who let loose to songs old and new.
This Yupik dancing doesn't happen at a special ceremony or festival. It's not put on by the school — though that happens too on St. Lawrence Island. No one wears beaded headdresses or fancy boots or even qipaghaqs, the snow dresses similar to kuspuks. No one is selling anything. There's no set program or designated song leader.
It's Eskimo dancing by Savoonga people for Savoonga people, for the joy and fun of it. It's a way to keep hold of culture, to celebrate what they have always had even as the world around them changes fast.
In the city building that also serves as the community bingo hall several times a week, a Yupik jam session consumes a cloudy April night. It's time for atuq, as drumming is called in St. Lawrence Island Yupik.
Young children dash between moms, uncles and aunties, then dance a bit too. Any of the drummers can lead a song and anyone can get up and dance, whenever they like.
"When it comes to mind, just sing it," said Larry Kava, who is 76, not quite an elder, and one of the drummers of Savoonga Singers and Dancers.
Drummers use old-style drums made of membranes from walrus stomachs stretched tight across wood bent into shape. Some were made by high school shop students and are kept secured in the tribal building when not in use. Drummers keep spray bottles at their sides and mist drums throughout the night to keep the membrane from tearing. They strike them from underneath, the drumming style of Northwest Alaska.
Sometimes a woman or man will dance alone. A teacher who is non-Native dances too, in bunny boots and a hoodie with snow goggles pushed up on her forehead for the trip home. People wear jeans and leggings, tennis shoes and puffy coats.
Some dancers face the drummers and others, as in a performance, face the small audience. They are trying to find their spot in a small space.
"All the songs are memorized, not written," Kava said later. "We start with the songs that anybody can dance, anyway they want." The night goes on. The drummers and dancers get more in sync.
"Women dance gracefully and men dance vigorously," Kava said, describing the tradition in which women keep their feet in place and men stomp it out. In Southwest Alaska, men dance sitting or kneeling, but in the north, they stand.
Scripted, motion dances begin, telling stories old and new, of a walrus hunt and a man drinking his first cup of coffee, of military drills and slushy seas.
"Everything is my favorite," said Rosina Toolie, 29, who has been dancing as long as she can remember.
They sing in St. Lawrence Island Yupik, the Yupik of Siberia, different from the dialect of Southwest Alaska. Some songs are from Russia. Some go way back, to before the Cold War, when people traveled by small boat back and forth from Siberia to the island. Lately, visits and cultural exchanges have brought new Russian songs to the island.
Usually drummers are men, but some women pick it up too.
Britany Kava, a young drummer, said her late grandfather drummed and danced and it made her want to do the same. She sets up and cleans up — and drums and dances.
"To keep my culture going, my tradition going. Don't want these younger kids to forget our tradition, to lose our language," Britany said.
Sivoy Miklahook, another of the drummers, volunteers at the school teaching drumming, to make sure the children learn.
It's a school night, so things started winding down a bit after 10 p.m. Otherwise they'd be going until 2 or 3 a.m., Larry Kava said.
Some older dancers have been saving their energy. Now it is time. Kava takes to the floor with his wife, Theresa. A young couple dances alongside them. Some people start recording on their smartphones.
It's the dance of ravens, of birds on thin ice. Each couple's hands come together. Drummers beat as one. Singers hit one final, loud note. The dancers give each other quick smiles. The crowd claps.
"It's our tradition," Larry Kava said. "We don't want to forget it."
Alaska Dispatch News reporter Lisa Demer and visual journalist Marc Lester recently spent a week on St. Lawrence Island. This is the last installment in a series of articles about life in Savoonga and Gambell.