Elim, Alaska. Tucked along coast and surrounded by trees and water. Familiar and calming sounds greet your ear, children laughing while sliding down the playground ice-slide in the wintertime, the gym filled with the echoes of bouncing basketballs, the ocean waves splashing against the shore in the summer. Yet, there was something missing among these sounds that had stayed silent for years.

With the support of the Bering Strait School District (BSSD), developing more cultural programming was a priority for the Aniguiin school. To find a starting place, Kris Busk of BSSD called Katirvik Cultural Center (KCC). The question was posed, what can we do to support the Elim community with cultural activities? With limited resources for an extended course, KCC staff recruited the help of local dance groups including the Nome St Lawrence Island Dance Group and the King Island Drummers and Dancers to assist with reviving dance traditions in the community. Historically, many communities around the region lost their dancing traditions due to missionaries forbidding the behavior and children being sent off to boarding schools.

To help bring the tradition home, the Nome St Lawrence Island Dance group were invited to the school in February 2018. On their visit the group taught kindergarten through 12th graders how to dance, and motions to songs. Songs and dances they taught were chosen to gift to the community so they could practice and perform with the blessing of the group. Songs and dances are not public for everyone to use. Some songs are kept within families and only to be performed by that family unless permission is given. When performing a gifted song and dance, the group first gives credit to the song composer as well as the group that gifted the song. These recognitions are an important part of traditional etiquette.

Alongside the dance group, culture-bearer Maligiaq Padilla went to teach drum making to the 6-12 graders. From start to finish the youth learned how to make a drum using synthetic materials. Traditionally the drums are made of walrus stomach, but an alternative canvas was provided for the class. Students also learned the cultural significance of the drum and how to take care of it. The school now has 15 drums to use and continue practicing with the students and the community.

King Island drummers and dancers were invited to teach in November of 2018 to build upon what the students learned with the first group, and to learn new songs. The songs gifted were more recently composed by Isaiah McKenzie, giving the students a blend of modern songs and traditional songs. Songs can educate the students on hunting and gathering, cultural pride, healthy relationships, positive self-identity, and more.

Following the visits, Kawerak created instructional videos of both the Nome St. Lawrence Island  and King Island dance groups’ gifted dances so the Elim community could utilize the DVDs for reference to continue practicing the dances, the songs and the drumming. The group was also encouraged to look into historical video and recordings such as those at Kawerak’s Eskimo Heritage Program to see if their past community dances could be found.

RESOURCES:  Katirvik Cultural Center 443-4340  •  Eskimo Heritage Program 443-4386