Dancing To The Songs Of Their Ancestors

by Teri Vance


Although all of the students are Yup’ik — a group of Eskimo people of western and southwestern Alaska — when they come together to sing and dance in their traditional ways at Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, they have differences to overcome. “We all come from different parts of Alaska, and we all have different songs from our villages,” explained Tatiana Korthuis, 16. “We all teach each other our different songs. We learn from each other.” And they approach it without judgement. “We try not to put each other down because most of the time we do things differently,” said Leann Francis, 17.

The group of eight dancers traveled to Carson City during their Christmas break to perform for the American Indian Achievement Awards at the Governor’s Mansion on Nov. 18. While they were here, they also performed at other venues, including the Nevada Department of Education. “People have been very interested in learning about our culture,” Francis said. “People may not know very much about our culture because we live so far from the rest of the states. We sing and dance to tell stories. Our songs have stories behind them, and they were made by our ancestors.” Wearing traditional headdresses made from wolf fur and seal skin and dance fans of woven grass and reindeer tufts, the students shared the songs and dances handed down through generations.


“Traditionally, we dance to brighten up people’s moods,” said Ariana Paukan, 17. “To entertain them.” Dancing and singing is also part of their regular lives in their villages, which range in size from about 4,000 people to 50, spread out over hundreds of miles on the tundra. Villages traditionally come together for a potlatch, a ceremony of giving, which the dancers described as a blend of a powwow and baptism. The potlatch is a celebration of a person and a welcoming of that person into the tribe. “For example, if you caught a seal, you stand on the skin of the seal and dance,” Korthuis said. “After you dance, you give that skin away to an elder or someone who helped you.”

It is traditional to give gifts to everyone who attends the ceremony and prepare a large feast. “During the summer, you catch a lot of fish and gather a lot of berries,” Paukan said. The students bring their different heritages to Mount Edgecumbe High School, a former Indian boarding school from 1947-1984 that has since become a public school, drawing students from across the state. “Ninety percent of our students go on to college and we have an average graduation rate of 100 percent,” said Rachel Moreno, cultural activities coordinator at the high school. “I learn more about history from working with them than any place I’ve ever been.” Sherry Rupert, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, arranged for the group’s performance. She teared up watching them dance. “It’s emotional because you’re connecting with their culture,” Rupert said. “It’s like their ancestors are speaking to you through the songs.”