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Remembering the man who helped revive Yup'ik dancing

Andrew Paukan, Angalraq, of St. Marys died March 2 this year. After waiting the customary 40 days, his wife, Mary, and family hosted a feast for the village.

It is a custom invoked by death but not grief. It is the end of grieving, a celebration of life. Over the next year many newly born children throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta will be given his name. In each namesake a little part of Andy will live on. A Yup'ik never really dies.

I was fortunate to be a part of the last 28 years of Andy's life. During that time I was unknowingly (at first) recruited by him to share the mission he had undertaken for his Yup'ik people. It was a mission that has changed the way the world understands Yup'ik culture, and a mission that has changed the way many Yup'ik people understand themselves.

I met Andy in 1980. He was a city councilman for St. Mary's. I was a novice city manager new to Alaska. I was intent on spending the state's new oil wealth shared with cities on a fire station, roads, water and sewer, expanded dock and other essential city stuff.

Andy also wanted to enlarge the city hall to make more room for Yup'ik dancing. He prevailed.

Once the hall was finished he wanted to invite as many villages still dancing to have a big dance festival in the new hall. My job: Write the grants.

Nine villages came to that festival in 1982. Andy believed that Yup'ik dancing would revive if people could experience again the joy of coming together to share songs, stories and dance. He was right. Today the thunder of Yup'ik drums rolls through villages where drums were once virtually silenced by missionary zeal. It wasn't all Andy's doing, but he was a spark. The dance festival he started continues to this day.

In 1989 Andy latched onto the wild idea of taking elders to the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka to select Yup'ik artifacts for an exhibit at Mountain Village. An unprecedented undertaking, but the museum agreed. My job: Write the grants.

More than 100 items of clothing, tools, masks and dance regalia were returned to the small Yukon village for a three-day exhibit to coincide with a dance festival of 12 villages. The English title for the exhibit was "Opening the Book." The book opened.

The small exhibit in Mountain Village laid the groundwork for the nationally acclaimed exhibit of Yup'ik masks -- "Agayuliyararput" or "Our Way of Making Prayer." That exhibit, organized by the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, opened in Toksook Bay in 1996 at a dance festival of 20 villages. The exhibit travelled around Alaska and the nation. Andy was a principal participant, as he was in the exhibit of Yup'ik science entitled "Yuungnaqpiallerput" or "The Way We Genuinely Live" currently at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center until November.

Andy believed strongly that being grounded in tradition was important both for individual identity and community health. He lived that life, but also found ways and people to help him make that belief a reality for others.

Here is what he said as a member of the steering committee for the "Agayuliyararput" exhibit:

"This project is important for me, and I believe all Yup'ik people, not because it brings the past back to us but because it may help preserve our future. I consider it fortunate that so many well-regarded museums have fine collections of Yup'ik materials. Certainly those who collected these items may have thought they were collecting the artifacts of a vanishing culture. However, among those of us whose forefathers were the craftsmen, these items demonstrate that we may be different, but we have not vanished."

We are fortunate that Andy and others like him came forward at critical times to prevent Native traditions from vanishing. In so doing, they preserved the rich heritage, diversity and joy that makes life in Alaska meaningful.

Tim Troll was Andrew Paukan's collaborator and friend.