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Native cultures in the spotlight

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – As the Alaska Federation of Natives convention wound to a close Oct. 25, other events in Anchorage honored Native cultures. The Anchorage Center for the Performing Arts presented the world premiere of a new symphonic piece that integrates traditional dancing, drumming and singing and the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center hosted a blessing and farewell ceremony for an exhibit featuring items created by the Yup’ik peoples.

Echoes, a new symphony piece included cultural performers singing Sea Chanties and a Sneak Up Dancer. Sea Chanty singer Geoff Kaufman was accompanied by a small chorus of singers and dancers; Wampanoag Sneak Up Dancer Tobias Vanderhoop was on stage with drummers and lead singer Woody Vanderhoop: a large group of Alaska Native singers and dancers and Hawaiian Dancers with lead singers Calvin Wailani Avila and Kanani Pekelo Tyson all represented cultures affected by the whaling industry of the 1800s.

All of these cultures crossed paths during the days of whaling ships as the ships traveled from one ocean to the other, picking up members of communities along the way. In the 1800s Native people became workers on whaling vessels that traveled from the East coast to the Pacific Ocean and north to the Arctic Circle. Composer and conductor Randall Craig Fleischer was commissioned by the Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations to create a symphony piece to take the story of these shared experiences to a new level.

ECHO is a collaboration of the Bishop Museum of Hawai’i, the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the North Slope Borough Echo Project in Alaska, the New Bedford Echo Project, the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Fleischer is Music Director for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra.

To prepare for composition of the Echoes, Fleischer traveled and immersed himself in the traditional music and cultures central to the piece. The orchestral accompaniment was intended to add texture to the traditional rhythms and songs, not to change or alter the original intent of the traditional pieces. The effect is powerful. The symphonic creation features not only the full symphony and 33 dancers and singers, but includes visual images projected on a large screen above the orchestra and sound effects.

Photo by Neva Reece
Fish trap at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art’s recent exhibit of Yup’ik culture.

The visuals show the natural beauty of the homelands represented in the piece, and features some archival images. The piece is intended for future educational use as a DVD.

On Oct. 26 the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center celebrated the exhibition “Yuungnaqpiallerput (The Way We Genuinely Live): Masterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival” with a blessing and dancing by the Kicaput (Anchor) Dance Group.

The exhibit moved on to other exhibit spaces in Alaska before it arrives at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The exhibit features 19th and early 20th century tools, containers, weapons, watercraft and clothing and examines from a cultural and scientific perspective, how the items allowed the Yup’ik people to survive and flourish in the sub-arctic tundra of the Bering Sea coast.

The exhibit takes the viewer from the ancient past into Yup’ik communities of today. Yup’ik elders contributed the narratives heard throughout the exhibit. In her statement about the exhibit, curator Ann Fienup-Riordan said, “Yuungnaqpiallerput is compelling in its presentation of the unique marriage between art, science and ethnography. At the exhibition’s core is the recognition that the Yup’ik way of life – both past and present – is grounded in deep spiritual values and scientific principles.”

One of the elders who spoke at the event stated that the 200 items in the exhibit are only a partial representation of the many tools he remembers from his childhood. Another speaker, Nick Andrew showed the audience a melgar, also known as a curved knife and a equgcuun, also called a kepun (adze), traditional tools he used to create a fish trap for the exhibit. Mr. Andrew said that reindeer horn was superior to caribou in the fashioning of the melgar and mentioned that his more modern version features scrap from a snowmachine.

Though there are no trees growing on the Bering Sea coast, the Yup’ik people made good use of the driftwood that floated in from forests hundreds of miles away.

Items in the exhibit were assembled from the collections of 13 museums in the United States and in Germany. As part of the process of preparing the exhibit, Yup’ik elders traveled to Berlin to examine items and share traditional information about their use. “The Way We Genuinely Live” exhibit was a joint project of the Anchorage Museum and the Calista Elders Council. The exhibit was developed with the help of Yup’ik elders, scientists and educators.

The exhibit “Yuungnaqpiallerput (The Way We Genuinely Live): Masterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival” will be on exhibit in Fairbanks at the University of Alaska Museum of the North from mid December to March 22, 2009, in Juneau at the Alaska State Museum from mid April through October 2009 and will be on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in the Spring of 2010.

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