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Persistence pays off for Alaskan dance group

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Twenty-two dancers from the Arctic Circle are preparing for a historic trip to the lower 48. The Suurimmaanitchuat Eskimo Dancers, based in Barrow, Alaska are headed to Washington, D.C. to take part in the presidential inauguration.

The group persisted in pursuing a late request for a spot in the parade and its efforts were rewarded on Dec. 12 with an invitation from Obama’s inaugural committee to come to Washington. The group is now scurrying to raise the money needed to make the trip.

Replying by e-mail, group member Rex A. Okakok shared what the invitation means. “We are very excited as it’s a history-making event in the United States. Who would have thought they’d invite a small tribe from Alaska, especially from the Arctic Slope?” The only other participants invited from Alaska, Palmer’s Colony High School Marching Band, also continues to raise funds after the school board turned down its recent request for assistance to make the trip.

This will not be the Suurimmaanitchuat dance group’s first trip to Washington, D.C. Along with three other Alaska Native dance groups they performed at the grand opening ceremony of the National Museum of the American Indian. The dance group, led by elder Warren Matumeak, has been performing as a group for nearly 20 years. The current membership includes elders to the very young; the eldest member is 84 years old, and the youngest is 6 years old.

The Suurimmaanitchuat dance group blends locally-derived songs and songs that have been shared among its ‘circum-Arctic neighbors.’ According to the group’s information sheet, its locally-derived songs were composed largely by the late Walter Akpik Sr., Warren Matumeak, Savoonga, and their forebears, and have its roots in the north-central North Slope of Alaska. More recent songs and dance motions were composed by other dance performers.

The group also offers songs that are “borrowed and exchanged with groups from as far away as Savoonga, Chukotka in the Bering Sea, and Arctic Canada.” Suurimmaanitchuat has many notable performances to its credit and has traveled as far as China to carry the songs of Arctic peoples to the world. Just as the traditional songs reflect traditional culture, some of the groups’ newer songs reflect experiences in more recent times. One song’s words and movements mimic the pre-flight talk of airline stewardesses and the group often brings crowds to laughter with its Elvis dance.

Okakok said donations are coming from many sources to help the group make the trip. “We are getting donations from our regional corporation, village corporation, regional government and oil companies that do business in Arctic Slope.” According to a recent story in the Arctic Sounder, East Coast subsidiaries of the Alaska Native Arctic Slope Regional Corporation have volunteered to build a float to accommodate elders from the North Slope community who will be taking part in the parade. A benefactor donated the use of her home for lodging for the dancers while they are in Washington D.C. All the hotels were already full. Okakok said the group is so excited to go they would have put up tents if necessary.

Even with this support, the group needs at least another $15,000 to cover its costs and has continued fundraising, as Okakok put it, “the regular Indian way,” with food sales, cake walks and 50/50 pot raffles. The group keeps 50 percent and 50 percent goes to the winning ticket holder.

At the recent Eskimo Games in Barrow, Okakok said, “Someone donated his only money, 50 cents. … he was honored to be part of our tribe going to the Presidential Inaugural Parade. We are also very proud to have been chosen to be the only Alaska Native group to be invited, indigenous people, the first Alaskans!”

Contributions to assist the Suurimmaanitchuat Eskimo Dancers in making this historic trip can be sent to: the Native Village of Barrow, Att: Eunice Brower, Box 1130, Barrow, AK 99723. For more information, the group can be contacted by e-mail at ebrower@nvbarrow.net or by phone at (907) 852-4411.

For information on the Washington D.C. events leading up to and including Inauguration Day, the Washington D.C. visitor’s information center has a list of activities, information about the inaugural balls and “44 Free Things to do in Washington” (while celebrating the inauguration of the 44th president), at www.washington.org/visiting/experience-dc/presidential-inauguration/information.