Alaska Native Dance

Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik Songs and Dances


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.