The dancers in this short video are 6th grade students at Tikigaq School in Point Hope, Alaska, an Inupiat village 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. They are performing traditional songs and dances, passed down through the generations, sung in their native language.
The annual school Christmas program in Point Hope is a little different than in most communities. Yes, there are seasonally popular songs and carols, but many of them are sung in Inupiaq, the language of the Tikigaqmuit, the Inupiat Eskimo people of this small whaling community on the edge of the Chukchi Sea. There is also lots of drumming, singing and dancing performed according to traditions that extend back in time beyond memory. The drums – which resonate much more loudly than one might suspect them capable of at first glance – are made from material such as the membrane of sea mammal organs stretched over wooden frames. The beautiful mukluks (boots) many of the participants wear are hand sewn from seal, caribou, beaver and other natural materials.
The dances celebrate the past and the present. Aaka Irma (Irma Hunnicutt), who volunteered her time to come to our school and teach the students these dances, has an honored place as an elder in this village. Although the students speak mainly English in their day-to-day lives, these celebrations give them the opportunity to honor their language and heritage. This is a place where traditions are still passed down generation to generation; where some of the clothing and much of the food is still provided by the surrounding land and sea; where traditions are alive and vibrant and honored.
On this occasion, the students and Aaka Irma invited their classroom teacher to dance with them.
Fashioned from polar bear fur and finished with intricate beading, this Inupiat yo-yo has transcended it’s traditional purpose to become art. Based on a bola design, in olden times tools like this were made of rocks tethered together with sinew and were used to catch birds.
Beautifully crafted by Molly Oktollik, one of the elders here in the village of Point Hope, Alaska, this Inupiat “yo-yo” isn’t what most of us envision when we hear the word yo-yo. In former times, they were made of rocks held fast on sinew tethers and in the right hands were a formidable tool for catching birds. Ptarmigan, for one species, are often easy to get close to, and ducks and sea birds returning to their headland roosts typically fly in on a low trajectory.
These days yo-yos are crafted as pieces of art, or, when less elaborate, as toys. It takes a certain skill, but the two ends can be made to rotate in opposite directions – that is, with one end revolving around the center handle clockwise, and the other revolving counterclockwise. It’s a pretty cool trick if you can get it to work.
Weathered jawbones of bowhead whales form a fence around the cemetery in Tikigaq, (Point Hope) Alaska).
After four consecutive weeks of daily rain – a precipitation rate almost unheard of in this semi-arid region of the Arctic – we’ve had several days of brilliant sunshine. The past three mornings, the gravel that makes up the ground here in Point Hope has been hard underfoot. Frost. The cloudberries are over, and the frost means it’s time to go pick cranberries. In the old days, the dead were not buried. “The land all around was our graveyard,” I was told by one of the people of the village. But when the missionaries came, they told the people of the village that the dead must be buried. And so this cemetery was created.
Today while Barbra and I were eating lunch, we saw a snowy owl outside my classroom window. Last week a brown bear – a grizzly – passed by the edge of town. This might be a good weekend to get up early and walk up the beach in hopes of seeing a walrus.