Alaska village embraces Native dances banned by church

(Rachel D’Oro/Anchorage Daily News, 22 February 2010) — NOORVIK — Bobby Wells has lived all his life in this remote Alaska village, where the Eskimo dancing of his ancestors was banned by Quaker missionaries a century ago as primitive idolatry. Now Wells, 53, and other residents of Noorvik have wholeheartedly embraced the ancient practice outlawed in the Inupiat settlement, which was established in 1914. “This is the way God made us, to express our thankfulness to him with dancing,” Wells said. The belief of traditional dancing as somehow evil, however, remains deeply ingrained in scores of Native villages around the state. But some communities have broken away from that ideology in recent decades. One by one, they have resurrected the old dances and songs of the long ago past, along with culture camps and language immersion programs. Mike Ulroan can’t imagine life without dance. It was already revived in the Cup’ik village of Chevak when he was born 21 years ago, long after the practice was prohibited by Russian Catholic missionaries. Dancing has always been a constant for Ulroan, even after he left four years ago to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage. In Alaska’s largest city, he dances with several groups. “It’s just a way to make me feel happy,” he said. “With the movements we do, we push away bad spirits and keep away sickness.” Noorvik’s decision to lift the ban last fall came after residents learned they would be the first in the nation to be counted in the 2010 U.S. Census. The idea had been kicked around before, but this time locals wanted to make it a reality for a celebration with visiting census representatives and other officials. Tribal leaders formally approved the proposal after it received the blessing of the Noorvik Friends Church, despite opposition from a few elders. It’s a huge change because dancing had never been done in the current location of Noorvik, which means “a place that is moved to” in Inupiaq. “I don’t speak for the church, but in my own view we’re going to come to a place in the afterlife where we sing and dance to the Lord,” said church pastor Aurora Sampson. “While we are on this earth we might as well practice.”

Posted 22 February 2010; 3:37:52 PM.   Permalink