This group of dancers from the Alaska Native Heritage Center came the distance from Anchorage to share their culture. They shared their regalia, customs, their language, songs, dances, and stories. Ileah Walker, a young woman who first volunteered at that Heritage Center at age nine, is now a preschool teacher, and still volunteers and dances. She is so proud of her heritage, she wrote in my notebook all the things she could think of that might be interesting to me. She speaks several dialects as there is immersion camp in schools for language revitalization. It’s important because there are eleven distinct cultures in Alaska, about 22 languages, and close to 100 different dialects.
Ileah’s culture is Athabascan, from the interior of the state. The Aleut and Alutiiq, from the Aleutian Chain is part of the Ring of Fire. The last island in the chain is closer to mainland Russia than to Alaska. The culture from the far North, Inupiaq, are hunters. Living on permanently frozen ground, the Inuit people hunt seals, bowhead whale, and walrus. They are the only people who can legally hunt these, because they do it the same way and for the same reason as their people have done for centuries. There are no trees here, and nothing grows. They must rely on the meat and the substances provided by these animals in the frozen North.
In the western part of the state, the Yupik and Cupik live in permafrost also, but the temperature is not as cold. The only cultural difference is the language dialect. In the southeast part of the state, a temperate rain forest is home to Eyak, Tlingi, Maida, and Tsimshian. Tsimpshian Island, also called Annette Island, is the most southern village in Alaska. They’ve had their own independence for 127 years. Can you imagine all this diversity in one state?
The Alaskan dance regalia has leggings, furry boots, big fur mittens and warm everything. (It was 95 degrees in Macon, and very humid.) The dances don’t take up much space, as it’s nearly all arms and graceful body movement, with the feet marking time in place. They explained it’s because their dancing is done in winter time indoors in their meeting halls. There isn’t space to move around. The graceful arm movements reminded me of dancers in another state – Hawaii! Without fur boots.
Speaking of temperatures, Ileah told me they do cancel school sometimes in the winter. When the temperature reaches minus fifty kids can stay home. I feel like such a wimp.
In Alaskan languages there isn’t a word or phrase that says “good morning,” or “good afternoon,” or evening. In Alaska it’s either all day or all night! Instead they have words that mean something like “blessings on this moment.” In the Cherokee language, there is no word for goodbye. The Cherokee believe there is no goodbye; we will meet again either this life or the next. The parting phrase translates loosely as “until our next meeting.”
I signed a book for Ileah to read on her long flight home, with a four-hour time change. We’ll be facebook friends. Maybe I’ll go to Alaska. I love selling books. It’s so much more than exchanging a $10 bill.