Festival honors Native arts and culture

Iñu-Yupiaq group dancing with fur fans on stage in front of an attentive audience.

The usually spacious and still atmosphere of the Fine Arts Complex lobby was met with a dose of vibrancy this weekend by the Festival of Native Arts. This explosion of color and sound was brought on by the crowds of families and friends walking to and from various booths selling traditional Alaska Native tools, jewelry, and artwork. Smiles and cheer were a common sight among the patrons and vendors.

One vendor, George Albert, was selling Koyukon, Athabaskan snowshoes. Albert said the shoes are a way of promoting Athabaskan culture.

“It’s keeping something alive, there are no snowshoe builders from my area,” said Albert. Looking at the event, Albert said that he’s happy to see a lot of young faces; that they were what was going to keep the culture alive. Even with this hopeful perspective, Albert admits to some disappointment with outsiders’ perspective of Native people.

“Others see those ‘street people’ downtown and think that’s what all Native people are about, thinking that’s all we do, but they don’t know anything about [the festival],” he said. He recounted an experience during a snowshoe workshop that he was teaching in Fairbanks. A non-Alaska Native woman was talking about the homeless in the downtown area, which he said came from a place of ignorance.

Woman carrying a child on stage as the Tlingit and Haida of Anchorage do their final dance as they walk off stage to make room for the next group performing.

“I worked all my life to make these, I didn’t learn to do this by being being on 2nd Ave,” Albert said, regarding his craft.

Albert looked at the crowd of people walking through the lobby, browsing booths and looking at the variety of wares being sold.

“There is much more that Alaska Native people can offer than most people can see,” he said.

The spirit and energy of room people was draped in a faint and low boom that was coming from inside the Davis Concert Hall. The last night of the Festival, March 3, welcomed the Pavva Iñupiaq Dancers on stage where they performed a wealth of dances and songs, one of which featured a mixture of Alaska Native dancing techniques and American Sign Language.

Head of the group as well as an assistant professor at UAF, Sean Topkok when talking about the dancing.

A people from both the audience and the Sleeping Lady Dance Group working together to perform a song on stage.

“There is a lot of healing involved with the dancing. There is a lot of youth that don’t know where they come from,” Topkok said. He also talked about a lot of other communities across Alaska are still trying to revitalize their culture.

“Elim, Alaska haven’t had their dance group since Western colonization,” he pointed out. Topkok is scheduled to have his group visit Elim to gift them with their traditional dancing on March 4.

While Topkok values the place of Alaska Native studies within education, he said that the festival brings a lot of those beliefs and aesthetics to life.

“It’s almost surreal, it’s a transcendent experience,” Topkok said when he talked about showing these traditional dances in a contemporary setting. Topkok expressed his enjoyment in seeing cultural revival, he talked about seeing women and men openly wearing traditional tattoos and markings that he felt are a sure sign of progress.

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