Alaska Native Dance

Similarities in the Midst of Diversity

Similarities in the Midst of Diversity

Enduring Understanding

Dance and song are universal human activities that express emotions and tell stories.

Dancing is a participatory event, and most groups end their performances with an invitational dance to which everyone is invited. No special skill or knowledge of particular steps is necessary.

Background

Alaska’s Native people comprise eleven cultures, speaking twenty indigenous languages. Just as each Alaska Native culture is distinctive, so the dances and songs are different from north to south, east to west. In spite of vast differences, there are important similarities:

  • Alaska Native dance groups only perform songs with the permission of the song’s composer or owner, which may be an individual, a group, or a clan.
  • All dance groups credit the composer, the owner, or both before the performance
  • All Alaska Native cultures hold some songs to be sacred or spiritually powerful. These are not generally performed in public.
  • Other songs, including those performed for visitors at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, are sung primarily for entertainment or instruction for the benefit of a wide audience.

To visit another Learning Center that contains an original dance composition, click here.

You will learn about and see videos of dancers from Alaska's five cultural groups in this Learning Center. This map shows the eleven Alaska Native cultures placed into five groups, each of which shares elements related to song and dance.

Athabascan Songs and Dances

Athabascan Songs and Dances

For Athabascans, the meaning behind the songs is more important than a set choreography. Still, the most common form of dancing places the men in the front, rocking their heels up and down and swinging their arms from side to side. The women remain stationary behind them, holding pieces of calico and swaying back and forth while rocking their wrists up and down to correspond with the beat of the drum. Musical instruments include plank drums, dance rattles, and more recently hand drums crafted from a wooden frame and covered with moose, sheep or caribou skin.

Different occasions require different songs, sung in a particular order. For example, honor songs honor an individual, a particular clan or an important event such as a young man’s first fish or animal. Mourning songs are composed at memorial potlatches to help the loved ones get over their grief. Love songs lift people’s spirits. Potlatch songs are sung during the distribution of gifts at a potlatch. Songs are owned property, belonging to either the composer or the group or individual that was given the song by the composer. Each song’s composer is credited before the song is sung.

Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik Songs and Dances

Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik Songs and Dances

Inupiaq

The Iñupiaq people of Alaska have been trading and sharing songs and dances for thousands of years with their neighbors, building a large repertoire of dances. A style called bench dancing features the men singing and drumming on the floor of the qargi (community house) and the women sitting on the benches behind them dancing with arm and hand movements.

In another type of dance, the women remain stationary, bending their knees while swaying and gracefully moving their hands to the drum beat. The men dance more aggressively with firm motions, stomping either foot to the drum beat. Some songs tell a story, some may have set motions and no significance, and some, called "common dances," are danced freestyle.

The drum, called the suayaq or kilaun, has a driftwood frame which is steamed and bent into an oval shape, then covered with a stretched walrus stomach, the lining of a whale’s liver, or scraped caribou hide. The handle may be bone, ivory or antler, and the drumsticks are driftwood or baleen. In some areas a box drum is used on certain occasions.

The songs are short and are sung twice. The first time through the drummers lightly hit the frame of the drum, and the second time they hit on the skin from the bottom of the drum with increasing volume and impact. Men and women wear atikluks (cotton parkas), gloves, kamiks (skin boots), and occasionally masks and headdresses while dancing. The composers of Inupiaq songs or dances may give permission to any number of groups to perform their songs and are always credited before the performance.

St. Lawrence Island Yupik

Dancing, drumming and singing on St. Lawrence Island is very similar to the Iñupiaq style. The skin of the drum comes from walrus stomach and the beaters are made of baleen. Women do most of the dancing and men do the drumming and singing.

In one type of dance, the women keep their feet stationary, bending their knees to the drum beat with graceful yet firm motions. The men stomp either foot to the drum beat and their motions are emphatic. The men’s dance motions are usually completely different from those performed by the women.

Other dances, such as the one shown here, tell stories that are acted out by the dancers. The best dancers are expert at mimicking animals.

Yupik composers teach their songs to others, thereby giving them permission to perform them. However, the original composer is always credited with the composition before the performance.

This video shows a St. Lawrence Island Yupik walrus dance. Notice the two verses and the positions of the man and the women. This was performed in 2009 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage by the Heritage Center Dancers.

Unangax and Sugpiaq Songs and Dances

Unangax and Sugpiaq Songs and Dances

Unangax

Many communities have worked to revitalize Unangax (also called "Aleut") song and dance traditions, which had been suppressed after two centuries of contact with Europeans and Americans. Most of these efforts began in the schools with the help of dedicated elders providing guidance and skills in making dance regalia, identifying the songs and dances, and encouraging youth to continue their efforts. The musical instruments are simple but elegant, consisting of handheld drums and human voices. The dances have always been tied to events in the village. They are a form of storytelling, and like stories, they are performed for the occasion, whether ceremonial or casual. The composers are credited before the performances.

In the early 1800s, the Russian Orthodox priest Iakov Netzvetov, whose mother was Unangax and father was Russian, wrote down the words to a song he saw performed in his home village of Atka. An early prose translation from the Unangax language (first into Russian, then into English) goes like this:

As it is done by the timid that I might do likewise,
I hid and departed.
And when I rode, gazing about, I saw the beast the sea lion, that he adroitly dives and comes up;
Stopping opposite him, I began to think:
Even for the timid one it seems possible to do with him one’s will;
And thinking that in my undertakings even I have had success, I took from the stern of my baidarka a javelin,
stripped the sheath (from the point) and placed (the javelin) before me.
I rode and drawing near to him, I shot at him, but did not place the javelin in him.
He became enraged and dived,
I rode after him and shot at him, but could do nothing with him, but only spoiled the points on my javelins.
Although I had gone off with this (object) only,
that I might not see anyone;
Yet I looked about, that I might see someone, and did not see (anyone);
And if there had been anyone with whom to weep, I would have so (wept), in such a condition was I.
Having stopped there, I rode home; having arrived,
when I landed on the shore,
I turned my ears to hear that which I loved, and considered myself a master in, (I listened for) the
voice of the tambourine and did not hear (it).
Yes! As I thought, so it is, for here you are.
And so take your tambourine and sing.

(Here the dancer stops singing and those sitting around begin to beat on the
drums and to sing while he dances and represents the hunter.)

Some 175 years later, Alaska's Poet Laureate, Richard Dauenhauer, took a hand at rewriting the song in a more song-like way. It might have sounded something like this, had it been performed in English:

It was something
anyone could do.
Nothing special,
so today,
I slipped away to hunt.


I paddled along,
looking around,
and saw an animal,
a sea lion,
rising joyfully
to the surface.


I stopped in front of him,
I thought


“nothing special,
anyone can do it “


and thinking
that I could kill him too
I pulled a spear from the strapping
on my bidarki stern.

Paddling toward him,
getting close to him,
I speared him.
But it didn’t penetrate.


Suddenly
he dived away.


I paddled after him,
I shot at him
again and again
but only lost
my spear points.


To see no one
I had slipped away on purpose;
I looked around for someone
but in vain.


If there’d been
one with whom to cry
I would have felt like crying.


After having drifted for a while
I paddled off,
to get back home.
Getting back,
I landed.

My ears were tuned
for the sound of drumming,
for the one I love
above all else,
for the one I think
I’m a master of:
the drum.


I did not hear it sounding
but I knew
you must be there
and there you are!
Take up the drums,
open up your mouths
and sing!

Sugpiaq

Sugpiaq (also called "Alutiiq") songs blend styles from the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian with Unangax, Athabascan, and Yup’ik cultures, creating an unmistakable style of their own.

Dancers are easy to recognize because of their unique regalia. During ancient ceremonies, performers often wore elaborate clothing, some specific to certain ceremonies, as well as carved wooden masks with complex attachments. People were tattooed and wore body paints and other decorative adornments. Today, the women wear a beaded headdress called a nacaq. The men wear various head pieces, including one that is significant in both the Unangax and Sugpiaq cultures, the bentwood visor known as caguyaq.

Sugpiaq dances are most often composed by members of the respective dance groups, but sharing is common, as long as the composer is credited before each performance.

This video shows the Sugpiaq dance group Imamsuat performing at a mask burning ceremony held in Kodiak in 2009 in honor of Sugpiaq leader and former Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety Glenn Godfrey, who died tragically in 2002 at age 53.


Masks were customarily burned, as depicted in this dance. However, today's Sugpiaq are glad that some masks were collected by the French traveler Alphonse Pinart in the 1880s and taken to a museum in France. Alaskans have traveled to view the masks and brought them back to Alaska on loan in an exhibition, where they continue to demonstrate the spiritual vision and artistry of the Sugpiaq ancestors.

Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Songs and Dances

Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Songs and Dances

Many songs from the Southeast area of Alaska follow the format of chorus, two verses, chorus and an ending. In the past, a person could tell where a song came from by the beat on the hand drums. Songs and dances are based on stories that have been passed down for hundreds of years within clans.

The regalia is individually and culturally significant to the person who wears it, representing clan membership and personal history. Before wool material was traded to Southeast people, the clothing was made of cedar bark and was hand woven. The wool used today is red, deep blue, or black, based on traditional colors derived from huckleberries, salmonberries, octopus ink, or soot from the fire pit. The crest symbols that are sewn or beaded onto the regalia show the dancers’ clan memberships. Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian are all matrilineal societies, meaning that each child is of his or her mother’s clan.

 

Drums used in Southeast Alaska dances do not have handles; they are held by the crossed rawhide lashings on the back of the drum. Drums are beaten in an emphatic, loud rhythm.

Here, cultural interpreter Helen Koenig shows a drum to visitors at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Songs and dances are owned property belonging to a clan, and can only be performed with the express permission of the clan leaders. Nowadays, dance groups from Southeast Alaska include members from many different clans, so they often perform dances composed by group members, dances that celebrate each member’s clan identity, and dances that tell of general celebrations rather than sacred clan stories.

This video shows a Tsimshian salmon dance, in which the men portray three of the species of salmon that are caught in the southernmost part of Southeast Alaska, while the women portray the people who are fishing. They spread their nets out, and in the end gather the nets together to catch the fish. The song has two verses: the first says, in Tsimshian, "Stand up in your canoe, big fish!" The second says, "Stand up in your canoe, big fish! I'm going to catch you and eat you!"


The dance was performed in 2009 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage by the Heritage Center dancers.

This video, produced by Blueberry Productions of Anchorage, Alaska for the Alaska Native Heritage Center, includes a very brief segment of Tlingit-style dancing and singing.

Central Yup'ik and Cup'ik Songs and Dances

Central Yup'ik and Cup'ik Songs and Dances

In Yup’ik and Cup’ik dances, the drummers sing and the dancers tell the story with the movements of their arms, bodies and sometimes facial expressions. The men dance in front while on their knees or seated cross-legged, while the women dance standing behind the male dancers. 

The dancers wear kuspuks (cotton garments modeled after traditional parkas), piluguuk or kemeksak (boots made out of bearded seal bottoms or soles and seal, caribou, bear, wolverine, beaver, calf skin, or other fur bearing animals for the upper portions), and women’s headdresses made of wolf, beaver, wolverine, and seal hides. Men and women hold dance fans (tegumiak). Those made for women are made of woven grass and caribou ruff while men’s are made from wood and the wing feathers of large birds. The women’s fans are graceful and flowing, while the men’s are rigid.

Drummers are seated behind the dancers and strike the skin-covered drum on the top. Yup’ik and Cup’ik songs have a chorus, two or more verses.

There is an optional encore (prompted by a shouted “Pamyua!” from the audience). A “pamyua” requires that the group repeat the chorus and dance with great enthusiasm.

The drums were traditionally covered with walrus stomach or scraped caribou hide, but because of limited resources they are now often covered with nylon airplane fabric.

Yup’ik and Cup’ik dance groups often share songs with each other, but they always credit the composers before the songs are performed.

This video shows a seal dance, made by John Pingayak of Chevak, in which the dancers mime the act of hunting for and retrieving a seal they have shot. Note the slow first stanza, when the dancers are catching the beat and preparing for the main portion, two additional verses in relatively sedate tempo, and two final verses that are drummed and danced more quickly, loudly, and with greater vehemence.


This dance was performed in 2009 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage by the Heritage Center dancers.

National and Alaska Standards

National and Alaska Standards

National Geography Standards

NSS-G.K-12.2: As a result of activities in Grades K-12, all students should:

  • Understand how culture and experience influence people's perceptions of places and regions.

NSS-G.K-12.4: As a result of activities in Grades K-12, all students should:

  • Understand the characteristics, distribution, and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.

NSS-G.K-12.5: As a result of activities in Grades K-12, all students should:

  • Understand how physical systems affect human systems.
  • Understand the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources.

National Physical Education Standards

NPH.K-12.1: A physically educated student:

  • Demonstrates competency in many movement forms and proficiency in a few movement forms.

NPH.K-12.7: A physically educated student:

  • Understands that physical activities provides opportunities for enjoyment, challenge, self-expression, and social interaction.

National Fine Arts (Music) Standards

NA-5-8.9: Understanding Music in Relation to History and Culture

  • Students describe distinguishing characteristics of representative music genres and styles from a variety of cultures.
  • Students compare, in several cultures of the world, functions music serves, roles of musicians, and conditions under which music is typically performed.

Alaska Geography Standards

B: A student should be able to utilize, analyze, and explain information about the human and physical features of places and regions. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • Relate how people create similiarities and differences among people.
  • Discuss how and why groups and individuals identify with places.

D: A student should understand the dynamic and be able to interpret spatial (geographic) characteristcs of human systems, including migration, movement, interactions of cultures, economic activities, settlement patterns, and political units in the state, nation, and world. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • Analyze how changes in technology, transportation, and communication impact social, cultural, economic, and political activity.

E. A student should understand and be able to evaluate how humans and phyusical environments interact. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • Understand how resources have been developed and used.

Alaska Arts Standards

A. A student should be able to create and perform in the arts. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • participate in dance, drama, music, visual arts, and creative writing.
  • refine artistic skills and develop self-discipline throgh rehearsal, practice, and revision.
  • appropriately use new and traditional materials, tools, techniques, and processes in the arts.
  • collaborate with others to create and perform works of art.

B. A student should be able to understand the historical and contemporary role of the arts in Alaska, the nation, and the world. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • recognize Alaska Native cultures and their arts.
  • recognize the role of tradition and ritual in the arts.
  • investigate the relationshiops among the arts and the individual, the society, and the environment.
  • respect differences in personal and cultural perspectives.

Alaska Cultural Standards

B. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to build on the knowledge and skills of the local cultural community as a foundation from which to achieve personal and academic success throughout life. Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Acquire insights from other cultures without diminishing the integrity of their own.

C. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to actively paerticipate in various cultural environments.  Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Enter into and function effectively in a variety of cultural settings.

D. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to engage effectively in learning activities that are based on traditional ways of knowing and learning. Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Acquire in-depth cultural knowledge through active participation and meaningful interaction with Elders.
  • Identify and utilize appropriate sources of cultural knowledge to find solutions to everyday problems.

E. Culturally-knowledgeable students demonstrate an awareness and appreciation of the relationships and processes of interaction of all elements in the world around them. Students who meet his cultural standard are able to:

  • Recognize how and why cultures change over time.