Performing Asveq (The Walrus Hunt)

Background Information

Stories, Songs, and Dance

Narratives are stories that reflect aspects of the culture, history, and traditions of the people who create them. They are produced with an audience in mind, and can be written in text, depicted in images, spoken or sung, set to music, and/or presented in movement and dance. For instance, music videos can be a form of narrative.

In their video, Asveq-The Walrus Hunt, high school students in Anchorage, Alaska, recount a narrative through dance, music, and song. With the help of musician and choreographer Steven Blanchett, a Central Yup'ik man from Western Alaska, the students write an original song and choreograph a dance about a Native walrus hunt, an important activity for the St. Lawrence Yupik and Iñupiaq people. After the students learn the song and dance, they work with a video team to turn their performance into a music video, which will allow them to share their story with a much larger audience beyond their Alaskan communities.

In this original dance, the male dancer plays the role of the walrus hunter, and the female dancers act as a chorus to help him tell the story. "The Walrus Hunt" song and dance also incorporates many Native traditions. Everyone wears traditional clothing; the women are in cloth parkas, known as "atiklut," and the man has on the sea-going clothing he needs to hunt walrus from a large open skin-covered boat called an "umiaq" or "angyapik." Male and female dancers also each have their own gestures. In Iñupiaq dance, it's typical for male dancers to stand and stomp one foot to the drum beat while female dancers bend their knees to the beat of the drum. Repetition is part of the dance: dances are repeated twice, first in a relaxed manner and then more emphatically.

Like any story, "The Walrus Hunt" has a character whose actions drive the story forward, here the hunter himself. The story also has a setting; both a location and a time of year are presented in the video through such elements as the clothing that the performers wear.

When a narrative is presented — whether in dance, words, pictures, or another way — there are also formal aspects of storytelling to consider: how will the story be shaped? What will be the beginning, middle, and end? How will repetition be used? It is the role of the creators to find the answers to these and other questions, and then combine the elements to create their narrative. Working through this process, the students in the video have created a new story, while also keeping alive their Native traditions and dance forms: elements that have been part of their culture for generations.

To learn about another type of traditional dance that is used to pass on important beliefs and values, check out the Choctaw Dances Learning Center.

To learn more about how many Native people preserve history and tradition through art, music, and dance, check out the Oral Traditions Learning Center.