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Bristol Bay gathered online to celebrate Indigenous culture this November


November is a month for celebration for Indigenous people in Bristol Bay. Facing pandemic restrictions, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation last month held an online event to celebrate Bristol Bay Native culture and history. 

Cauyarvik is the Yup’ik name for the month of November. It’s a time for yuraq traditional dancing and singing. Celebrations are usually held in person, but the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many events online.

Atkiq Ilutsik-Snyder, the culture camp project director for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, said that while people may be physically distant and unable to travel, it is still important to continue the traditions and to celebrate online. 

“It definitely feels different than how it would be if we were in person, but it is something,” she said. “This pandemic has been really hard on everyone and our songs and dances really are healing.”

The celebration, which ran for just over an hour, drew people from across the west coast.

“We have people registered who are calling in from Washington, from California, from across the U.S., from across the region from Anchorage from across Alaska,” Ilutsik-Snyder said. “It’s pretty awesome to see all of us being able to come together in this virtual space.”

The celebration featured songs and dances from Yup’ik, Alutiiq, and Dena’ina cultures, a mark of Bristol Bay’s diversity.

Margie Frost taught yuraq for the Yup’ik portion of the event, and delved into its history and meaning. She appreciates that while she isn’t used to celebrating online, it was a good way to continue traditions. 

“It looks a lot different than what our ancestors did but we’re still able to pass it on and share and it’s just a great feeling to know that,” she said.

Frost was also excited to share Yup’ik culture with people from around the country.

“Not only was I able to continue teaching Native dancing, but also I had people from all over Alaska that joined the class,” she said. “Some were even families so that made it even greater that we were able to reach more people.

Dezzy Delkittie and Michelle Ravenmoon taught the Dena’ina portion of the celebration. One of their family members had recently passed away, and Ravenmoon said singing, dancing, and sharing traditions helps in trying times.
“I think it was really powerful to be able to reach out to such a broad audience, especially in this time where we feel very isolated. It was also very healing and rejuvenating,” said Ravenmoon. “My grandmother was also helping us to share some of the knowledge about what the traditional potlatch means.”

Hanna Sholl, who taught the Alutiiq songs and dances, said that even when in-person gatherings are safe again, online outreach can help villages participate in culture classes.

“As far as in person dancing goes, I think that as soon as we’re able to, that will spark right back up, but there are a lot of places that we just can’t get to go teach dance in certain areas,” she said. “This will allow us to fill in that gap with virtual sessions.”

Sholl said while the virtual celebration was good, she is excited to have in person classes when it’s safe.
“Nothing beats dancing in person and celebrating together,” she said. “I’m very comfortable on the online platform teaching and I love that it’s what we’re doing but it doesn’t quite translate as it felt when we are able to dance and meet in person and celebrate in person.”

Ilutsik-Snyder, with the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, said she was happy to organize the event. When things get difficult, she said, it can help to look to traditions.

“Our songs are a way of connecting with our ancestors and prayer, connection with our history, our land, our stories, and really I think it’s a time where we’re all struggling with this pandemic,” she said.

It’s important to have a way to come together and celebrate. Virtual sessions hosted by Iilgayarmiut Yurartet, The Bristol Bay Dancers, are open to the public. More information can be found on the Facebook group, Bristol Bay-am Qasgia/Na qenq’a.

Contact the author at brian@kdlg.org or call 907-842-2200