The Alutiiq Dancers attended an event in Juneau earlier this month called Celebration. It’s a four-day festival centered mostly on Southeast Alaska Native cultures where dance groups demonstrate their craft alongside artists of all kinds. Dance leader Candace Branson and two of her dancers sat down with KMXT’s Kayla Desroches to talk about Celebration and its significance for them.
That’s a historic Alutiiq entrance song Branson says originally comes from a man from Sitka whose wife was from Kodiak.
“He had learned some of the dances and brought them home when his wife had died. He brought them home and taught their dance group and took care of these songs. And we, in the meantime, lost most of our songs and dances and Sitka was caring for this set of five songs.”
She says the song is one the Alutiiq Dancers performed at Celebration this year, the third time they’ve participated in the festival. While the event is focused on Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people, it’s an opportunity to acknowledge the connection between cultures.
“We had conversations with people from Kake, people from Metlakatla and people from Sitka who talked about our ancestors’ relationships. How people who had come from Sitka to Kodiak and married here and returned later to Sitka. People who remember the Alutiiq people coming to places to Kake for trading.”
Branson says Celebration was different from larger performer showcases.
“It always feels funny to compare yourself to other dance groups and to worry about feeling like the best dance group, think about who’s in front of you and who’s behind you and how the crowd is going to like what you have. At Celebration, we were celebrated. And all the dance groups were celebrated.”
Branson describes the evolution the Alutiiq Dancers have gone through, from refining their pronunciation so that elders can understand the song lyrics to crafting new songs to perform. Pressure to assimilate with the Western cultures that colonized Kodiak Island left gaps not only in language, but art forms like dance.
Branson says they only have three songs elders remembered and taught them, and most of the songs have been created since the dance group came together.
“We make them and choreograph them based on what we have seen from the traditional songs, what we know about Yupik and Inupiaq dancing because our cultures are similar, and we’ve had different people come in and show us how they dance.”
High school senior, Alyssa Madrid, says her mother and aunts joined the Alutiiq Dancers a little after it started in 1987, and it’s been a part of her life since early childhood. She says the Alutiiq Dancers’ struggle to recover their traditions sets them apart.
Madrid says she left Celebration feeling empowered.
“I’m so ready to continue learning about my culture and other cultures. It was really amazing to go and see other dance groups as well, and they just have so much fun, and they’re so proud. I look at our group, and we’re proud, but I want us to be even more proud.”
High school junior, Sadie Coyle, calls Celebration an amazing experience.
“Our culture has lost our language and dance for so many years, and now revitalizing and being able to dance and sing the language is pretty heartwarming. I’m pretty glad and proud to actually know and be able sing without having to look on a piece of paper and be able to show my love and passion through dance.”
Branson says, moving forward, the Alutiiq Dancers want to work on creating new songs and dances.
“While we lost a lot of that, we can’t just sit in the loss. We have to go ahead and create new songs and be proud of those.”
She says they’ll also try to recruit more male dancers over the next couple of years and recreate Alutiiq items – like belts or shoes – housed in museums across the world.
The full recording of the Kodiak entrance dance, Yugaa Yugaa, recorded in the KMXT studios: