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Dance festival heats up the Alaskan night

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - Dance groups throughout Alaska gathered in Fairbanks March 1 - 3 for the 34th Annual Festival of Native Arts. Each night, from 6 p.m. until midnight or later, different groups entertained on the stage at the Charles Davis Concert Hall on the University of Alaska - Fairbanks campus while Native artists sold a wide variety of crafts in the UAF Great Hall.

The event dates back to 1973, when UAF faculty and students decided to hold a spring festival to showcase the artistry and dances of each Alaska Native culture. It was met with such enthusiasm that it has been an annual event since then, and the crowds in attendance indicate its popularity. Despite temperatures that remained well below zero, the audience filled the seats as group after group appeared on stage.

Responsibility for the planning and production of such an event has largely been taken over by Native students at UAF. This year's student coordinator was Janelle Fritze, Yup'ik, a sophomore majoring in English with a minor in Alaska Native Studies.

''I first performed here when I was a high school student in 2001 with a dance group from Dillingham,'' Fritze commented. ''This is my first year as the coordinator. I take care of the dance groups; I recruit them, I get volunteers to help and I help them get credit for the class.''

Fritze explained they also occasionally get groups from outside the state. Last year, the Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre from New Zealand performed; and this year, a group from California called Tezkatlipoka Danza Azteca added an aspect that was very different from the Native cultures of Alaska.

''We normally try to have 25 dance groups, and this year was the largest with 32. It's been kind of crazy,'' she laughed. ''I had 17 hours to fill over three nights with the 32 dance groups.'' Some groups performed just one night, while many performed on two different nights.

Performances vary considerably, not too surprising given that they represent many areas and cultures throughout Alaska. The Kodiak Island Drummers roused the crowd with their artistry on a variety of drums. Fritze added that they do a lot of their own compositions. She performs with the Inu-Yupiaq Dance Group, a large group from UAF that was another crowd favorite in which Eskimo drums in the background provide the beat for the dancers.

The Walking Hawk Intertribal Drum is reminiscent of the drums at pow wows throughout Western states of the lower 48. Many other groups, such as the Tlingit and Haida Dancers of Anchorage, the Di'haii Gwich'in Dancers and the Nagsragmiut Eskimo Inland Dancers, are drastically different from dance groups in the lower 48. Cultures largely dependent on fish and ocean mammals, living in such different climate conditions, are just not duplicated elsewhere in the United States.

The Native craftwork for sale also represented work from throughout Alaska. Beautiful dancing dolls were for sale with ivory faces made by Sara Tweet, Inupiaq, originally from Teller. Tweet also makes sealskin slippers, mukluks and beadwork.

Lenwood Saccheus, Inupiaq, from Elim, showed his artwork including incredible carvings in soapstone and wood depicting kayakers with seals, spirit masks with their circles of heaven and earth, and the animals needed for a hunter's survival. These are made of baleen, whalebone, soapstone, ivory, feathers and wood.

Justus and Ethel Mekiana, Eskimo, showed their masks of caribou hide from Anaktuvuk Pass. These masks, complete with hair, eyebrows and moustaches, have long been associated with this locale. Various beaders also had their work on display and for sale.

Fritze's mother, Annie, was selling fur mittens and hats made from a variety of animals trapped by her husband and made from patterns her late grandmother and late aunt had given her.

''To keep our rich Yupik history and culture alive, I've taken it upon myself to learn how to sew hats and mittens; and I teach my children as well,'' Annie Fritze said, adding that this was her first time coming to this show. ''It has been a very positive event for my husband and me. It has been a very learning experience. I sat down and got some words of wisdom from an elderly lady from Barrow. She told me she was proud of me, and it makes me feel humble and want to strive to continue to produce my work.''

Next year's 35th Annual Festival of Native Arts is scheduled for the first weekend in March.