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Wales' Kingikmiut Dance Festival ends in marathon session

By Keith Conger - Published in the Nome Nugget newspaper 09/17/15

From the edge of the Wales school gym, sometime between late

Sunday night, and very early, Monday morning, Luther Komanaseak
proudly watched the local dance group. The drums were banging loudly
in the background and rhythmic dancers filled every available space.
Komanaseak, one of the village's community leaders, took a moment to
explain the origins of the annual Kingikmiut Dance Festival at which
his relatives were performing.

Years and years ago, he said, when the people of Wales, Alaska
had had a successful hunting season, they would send members of their
village out far and wide to invite other settlements to a grand
celebration. These runners were known as messengers, and thus the
feast became known as The Messenger Feast.

The tip of the Seward Peninsula, and for that matter the
westernmost point of mainland North America, is home to Komanaseak
and about 150 Wales residents. He said for around 60 years dances
went missing from his village. When whaling ended, the dancing
did too.

Anna Oxereok, President of the Native Village of Wales says the
absence of drumming and dancing spanned many generations, and was
finally broken around 1989. Dancing was reintroduced through the
school, she said. One of the key figures in the resurgence was Faye
Ongtowasruk, who passed away this summer. The three-day, 2015
Kingikmiut Dance Festival was celebrated in honor and memory of this
important elder.

Wales drummer and dancer Sherman Richard remembers the
reintroduction well. He was in second grade when Ongtowasruk and
several others began teaching the first school children. He said
dancing really took off after it was presented to the community at
the Christmas program that year. Sherman has performed ever since.

In 2000, Wales revived the important tradition of inviting its
neighbors to dance celebrations by creating the Kingikmiut Dance
Festival. The gathering this weekend represented the 16th
time they have done so. Although the historic Messenger Feast took
place mid-winter, Wales modern version of the traditionally important
inter-societal gathering, takes place on Labor Day weekend, at the
end of summer.

Today messengers are no longer sent on foot. Rather, Wales tribal
coordinator Vanessa Tingook, and her assistant Julia Ongtowasruk use
the United States Post Office as messengers by sending out letters to
prospective dance groups.

Oxereok said the Native Village of Wales applied for, and was
awarded, a grant from Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation's
Outside Entity Funding program to help pay for the event. NSEDC
Communications Director Laureli Ivanoff says the Kingikmiut Dance
Festival has received funding through OEF since 2010 - this year in
the amount of over $40,000.

Kotzebue, Point Hope, Savoonga, King Island, and Anchorage
accepted invitations for the 2015 event. Last year the festival
was visited by a group from as far away as Anaktuvuk Pass. Oxereok
says each village brings something to contribute to the closing day
feast, and a reindeer had been procured from local herder Davis
Ongtowasruk.

Sunday marked the final day of the get-together. Little activity
occurred on the streets before the dinner hour. Many of the
festival-goers were heeding the advice of Richard who suggested they
sleep extra long to prepare for the “Grand Finale” that night.
According to Tingook, Friday's session lasted until around 2:00 a.m,
and Saturday's dancing and drumming went until 3:00 a.m. the next
morning. Last year, Sunday's drumming and dancing finale didn't
conclude until around 10:30 a.m. the next day.

Except for the kitchen, where a dedicated force of Wales women
spent the day preparing food for the feast, the school was relatively
quiet all morning and afternoon. Around 3:00 p.m. a group of teens
and pre-teens gathered at the far end of the gym to play traditional
native games. They were led by Autumn Ridley, who has family ties to
Wales, and is a member of the Anchorage Kingikmiut Dance Group. The
kids are in good hands because Ridley is the current world record
holder in the Alaskan High Kick and Two-foot High Kick. She is
currently tied for the world record in the Alaskan One-Foot High
Kick.

The first group to perform after the elaborate meal was the
Kikiktagaruk Northern Lights Dancers from Kotzebue. Drummer Wilbur E.
Karmun Jr. said his group's songs have northwestern Alaska origins,
from Kivalina to Wales. Dancing and drumming was once a mainstay of
the trade fair that occurred in Kotzebue. With a song list that would put
the Rolling Stones to shame, the job of determining which ones would
be performed at the Kingikmiut Dance Festival falls on song leader
Richard Atoruk.

Karmun says his group is fresh off performing for President
Obama. When the president arrived in Kotzebue on Air Force One last
week, the Kikiktagaruk Dancers were there on the runway to greet him.
The group presented the Commander in Chief with a specially
decorated drum.

The Anchorage Kingikmiut Dancers have never missed the festival.
Drumming member Greg Nothstine was raised in Nome, and attended first
through fifth grade there. Part of his family originated in Wales.
While many of the tunes his group performs are traditional Wales
songs, they have composed original ones as well. Nothstine is particularly
fond of the Seal Poke Song, also known as the Float Jacket Song. The
Alaska Kingikmiut Dancers gave the song to the Alaska Native Tribal
Health Consortium for their “Kids Don't Float Campaign.”

This year the Savoonga Dancers took their turn attending the
festival. Oxereok said each year Savoonga and Gambell alternate
appearances. Savoonga Drummer George Noongwook said traditional
dances have never stopped being performed in his village. Their songs
originate from Savoonga, Gambell, and Russia.

The King Island Drummers and Dancers have also attended each of
the 16 Kingikmiut Dance Festivals. At one point during Sunday nights
performances they wowed the audience by having the men sit in a line
on the floor with their backs to the bleachers, while the women sat
opposite them on a row of chairs. King Island drummer Bryan Muktoyuk says
festivals provide the opportunity for them to perform traditional
“bench dances.” They are his favorite. Muktoyuk, who was
introduced to these songs by his grandparents when he was growing up,
said this performance configuration symbolizes the arrangement once
found in the club house on King Island, where seated women danced
from benches around the room's periphery and men sat and drummed from
the floor below.

The last two groups listed on the performance schedule were Point
Hope and Wales. Nothstine said it is common for one dance group to
give a song to another. Many years ago Wales gave some of its songs
to Point Hope. When Wales wanted to revive its dancing and drumming
traditions, Point Hope gave songs back to them.

By the time the Wales Kingikmiut Dance Group completed its
scheduled time, the clock on the gym wall showed 3:00 a.m. While some
festival attendees headed for sleep, many stayed for the Grand
Finale.

Richard said after the conclusion of the scheduled performances,

drummers from all the dance groups positioned
themselves in a U-shape along three walls of the gym for the closing
extravaganza. There are about 10 to 12 songs all the dance groups
know, so for quite some time everyone joined in. When the participants
exhausted the common songs, groups start sharing songs. Richard
said that when songs are shared, they become part of the new group's
repertoire.

At 8:30 a.m., nearly 15 hours after the beginning of Sunday's
activities, the Grand Finale, and thus the 16th Annual
Kingikmiut Dance Festival came to a close.

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