Alaska Native Dance

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.