UAF hosts 37th annual Festival of Native Arts

Lori Bean dances on stage in the Great Hall for the Ingrimuit Yup’ik Dance Group Thursday, March 4 during the Festival of Native Arts. Photo by Angela Milliron/The Sun Star

By Kelsey Gobroski
Sun Star Contributor

Hundreds of Alaskans spent the first weekend of March at UAF celebrating Alaska Native art and culture.

Representatives from eight cultural groups performed in the Great Hall and about 30 vendors set up shop in the Wood Center for the 37th annual Festival of Native Arts on March 4, 5 and 6. Alaskans from all over the state attended the event, said UAF student Naaqtuuq Debra Dommek, who is working on her degree in Alaska Native Studies and danced at the event.

“It’s a way to bring people together – not just the Fairbanks community, not just the university, but statewide,” said Dommek, who compared the event to a reunion. “It’s a way for us to share culture with people and celebrate it through the arts.”

Dancing is a major part of the event, and one that makes it unique, Dommek said. “Traditionally, in Alaska, dance groups pretty much stick to their regions close by,” Dommek said. FNA is unique because artists from different Alaskan cultural groups attend, she said.

The first dancers were three- to five-year-olds who watched their leaders shyly. As they moved through the songs, the FNA Head Start dancers gradually abandoned their stage fright. Toward the end of the event, the Tlingit Mt. St. Elias Dancers from Yakutat performed a series of Aleut-inspired songs. According to the group’s leader, the songs ranged from descriptions of marine scenes to traditional feast dances. Each dancer in the group performed with a unique outfit, personality, and style.

The festival began in 1973, when Alaska Native students saw a need for cultural appreciation, Dommek said. The festival is mostly student organized, though university staff and faculty are also involved. Much of the student participation comes from an Alaska Native Studies course, ‘Practicum in Native Cultural Expression,’ which focuses on volunteering for this event.

Dommek first danced at FNA in 2003, with a dance group called Miracle. Although she was born in Kotzebue and is Inupiat, she learned to dance in Anchorage, the Yup’ik way. Dommek now dances for an Inu-Yupiaq group. Inu-Yupiaq dancing draws from styles and traditions of Native groups throughout the state. During practice on Wednesday night, Joel Forbes, the group’s advisor, provided rhythm with cauyaq drums. Dommek said the drum represents the heartbeat, and intensifies as the song goes on.

Another group, Pamyua (“encore” in Yup’ik”), brought new flare to traditional dancing through a mixture of traditional and contemporary clothing, as well as emphasized beats and expressions.

Performing groups often invited audience members up to the stage to dance with them. Even nearing midnight on the final day, a couple dozen people joined dancers for a song. Attendees filled most of the seats in the Great Hall throughout the event. The event appeared to be relaxed, with attendees moving between the foyer and main event. The din of audience conversation sometimes drowned out the master of ceremonies.

Vendors came from around the state to sell jewelry, clothing, and other crafts in the Wood Center. Tony Brown came from the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin to sell jewelry. He said he used to live in Anchorage, and sang and danced at the festival back in the 1980s.

The festival also hosts an annual potlatch and pow-wow, because “one big part of communities is to eat together,” Dommek said.

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