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Music

Camp brings gift of music to rural Alaska villages

  • Author: Matthew Gilbert
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 6, 2014

Walking down a road in Eagle on a summer night, if you closed your eyes, you might think you were at the Juilliard School in New York. But the music wafting through the air is being made by student participants in Dancing with the Spirit.

Funded through tribal councils, schools, individuals and grants, Dancing with the Spirit is a program that brings weeklong music camps to rural schools all around Alaska. As of this summer, the camp has reached 27 different villages -- including Eagle, where the community is still recovering from last year's devastating flooding, and where a special crowdfunded camp session was held earlier this summer.

Founded by an Episcopal priest from Cordova, Rev. Belle Mickelson (whom countless Athabascan children have come to call "Mother Belle"), Dancing with the Spirit brings instruments and professional players to the villages it serves, providing rural Alaska children with music lessons they might otherwise not get.

The program originated from an existing music camp program, Cordova 4-H Music Camp, which was started by Alaska Folk Arts Camp director Mary Schallert and was the birthplace of national bluegrass band Bearfoot. Dancing with the Spirit branched out of the Cordova program eight years ago with weeklong programs offered throughout the year.

Rev. Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village is a traditional Athabascan fiddle player and one of the camp instructors. He said Dancing with the Spirit is one way to combat the problems facing rural Alaska communities. "In the old days we fought tribal wars with arrowheads," Gilbert is quoted as saying on the group's website. "It's a different type of war now -- against drugs and alcohol. I believe we can win with music."

On its website, Dancing With the Spirit expands on that mission: "Music builds confidence, self-esteem, and the closeness of family. Music develops leadership, builds community, keeps kids in school -- and is a wonderful way to pass on language and culture."

Youth enrolled in the program take classes in fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass. The sessions culminate in group performances. To help students learn quickly, instructors use color-coded dots to mark guitar chords and a matching color-coded fiddle tab. The system helps students play in community concerts in a week or less and leaves them with the skills to continue playing on their own. The camp staff travels with small plane loads of fiddles, guitars, mandolins, electric basses -- even the occasional banjo.

"The way Belle teaches, she makes (it) easy for Native kids to learn instruments," Gilbert said.

Director Mickelson said Dancing with the Spirit also makes an effort to involve local elders in each community visit, inviting them into the classroom to tell stories, play music, and encourage youth to become community leaders. She said she enjoys traveling with Gilbert and his wife, Mary, who speak Gwich'in and tell stories to their young students. On a trip to Fort Yukon in January, Gilbert told the students stories of square dancing in winter camps, when musicians, with no instruments, just sang the tunes and pretended they were playing fiddles. He also recounted how sheep intestine was sometimes used to make fiddle strings, Mickelson said. The elders are enthusiastic about sharing their love of music.

"A few years ago," Mickelson recalled, "(elder) Hudson Sam in Huslia held up his guitar and told students, 'This can be your best friend.' "

This year, Dancing with the Spirit set its sights on Eagle, still rebuilding from 2013, when the Interior community experienced its second-worst recorded year of spring flooding.

To fund a summer camp in Eagle, Mickelson and her team turned to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, setting a $5,000 fundraising goal. They ended up surpassing that goal by $700, and the Eagle camp was held in June.

Sonja Sager is the Eagle parent of a Dancing with the Spirit participant.

"I really appreciate the program," Sager said. "It brings life to the community when it happens, but it's a chance for the kids to have a good music education, too. We hardly have any funding for music program in our school. It's also been important because recently we're learning Han, Gwich'in and Koyukon language."

Sager's daughter Violet Burnette, 13, has participated in the camp when it's traveled to Eagle in previous years and was thrilled at its return.

"I (was) really happy to see people get their hands on these interesting instruments that they would never get a chance to play otherwise," said Burnette, who will be in eighth grade this fall. "It was nice to see Belle again and meet other kids."

Burnette, who wants to be a firefighter when she grows up, said someday she'd like to travel to other places and teach children how to play instruments. She added that the camp helped her get over shyness and improved her communication skills.

Based on the success of the Eagle fundraiser, the Dancing with the Spirit staff plan to use Kickstarter again in the future to fund their programs, Mickelson said. They'd like to package the program so it can be duplicated nationally and internationally. Until then, Mickelson said, they'll keep bringing the program to more villages, filling more community halls with music and inspiration.

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