For some in Alaska, clowning around kicks off the new year

Actors and their director (in black pants) prepare for a 2.5 hour pageant ushering out the old year and welcoming in the new. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

Joaqlin Estus

'Most of it dates back to when Russians came to Alaska for fur trading'

Chugach Heritage Foundation hosted a New Year’s celebration last Friday. It may seem really late for that… but less so according to the calendar used by the Russian Orthodox church. The Julian calendar shows the new year starting on Jan. 14.

The main attraction of the evening was a pageant. While the origins of a play put on by Alaska Natives for Russian New Year’s are vague, they’re believed to be based on now long-gone Russian traditions and ancient Alaska Native traditions.

Behind the scenes, performers put on hats, headdresses, and masks while the audience filled their plates with seal meat, Russian fish pie, turkey, potatoes, rice, salads, cake, and Russian tea cakes.

Leo Ash, Sugpiaq, put together a band for the Anchorage event. “The music played during the performance, most of it dates back to when Russians came to Alaska for fur trading, even prior to when they came,” Leo said. Now people play the songs using other instruments, but, “The Sugpiaq of the region would dance using the drum, kind of the way people would associate with Alaska Native people now.”

He learned the tunes from his uncles while growing up in Nanwalek, a Sugpiaq village of 250 people located on Cook Inlet about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. Russians established a Russian Orthodox church in Nanwalek in 1786.

Friday’s celebrants included people from Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound communities that are part of the Chugach region created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

The basic plot of the play is that the Old Year is reluctant to move aside so the New Year and the 12 months of the coming year can take over. The Old Year clings to his position with the help of three Old Women representing the last three months of the old year. The Old Women (played by men) thwart the New Year, while women playing the part of the coming 12 months help it.

The Old Women characters wear masks with bird beaks, and clothes made of burlap. The women playing the parts of the 12 months wear full-length skirts, white blouses, hair ornaments and veils. The Old Year has a hunchback (a bed pillow stuffed under his shirt). The New Year and the MP (a policeman) wear white uniforms like those you’d see in a marching band.

The first round is called “free-style masking.” People put on white cotton masks with faces drawn on them and dance silly dances. For the next round, some wear masks and some wear veils. They have round spots of rouge on their cheeks and bright red lips.

At the start of the play, the performers put on masks to hide their identities. Later they wear veils.
At the start of the play, the performers put on masks to hide their identities. Later they wear veils. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

Gordon Kvasnikoff, Sugpiaq, the director of the performance, said, “A lot of this is from my village [Nanwalek].” Traditionally the Sugpiaq wore masks in ceremonies to summon ancestors, supernatural beings, and the spirits of animals.

“The MP is the guy that controls the whole thing,” Kvasnikoff said. “His force is MP, military police strength showing that’s the strongest. He originally had a gun. He'd shoot the Old Year and he'd control all the rounds. He's given a whistle. And that's why you see him blowing the whistle to start the round,” Kvasnikoff said.

The MP tries to keep order as the New Year and the twelve months of the new year promenade. The Old Women keep causing mischief. They taunt the New Year and MP, and hit them with their purses. A show that began with the actors bowing to the audience and band and a quiet promenade, gets rowdier and rowdier with mock-fights that get everyone laughing.

The New Year tries to pull an Old Woman off the stage while another Old Woman pulls to keep her where she is. The roles of the three Old Women are played by men. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)
The New Year tries to pull an Old Woman off the stage while another Old Woman pulls to keep her where she is. The roles of the three Old Women are played by men. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)
Just before a fall: One of the Old Women characters grabs the legs of the MP and of the New Year. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)
Just before a fall: One of the Old Women characters grabs the legs of the MP and of the New Year. (Screenshot of video taken by Joaqlin Estus)
One of the Old Women (played by a man) gets carried off stage by the New Year, followed by the MP. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)
One of the Old Women (played by a man) gets carried off stage by the New Year, followed by the MP. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

In one such “fight,” one of the Old Women characters ran, leapt and clamped his legs around the waist of the New Year character, then dropped to his feet and strong-armed the New Year into dancing a waltz. During one of their spins, he whirled away and ran off into the audience.

The New Year went after him and brought him back to the stage. The Old Woman threw himself down on the floor and wrapped his legs around the ankles of the New Year. When the MP came to help restore order, the old woman ensnared one of his legs too. As the New Year and MP toppled, another Old Woman joined the fray and soon was playing tug-of-war against the New Year with the first Old Woman serving as the rope.

The Old Women would hide in the crowd. As the MP and New Year searched for them, children would point and shout, “Over there! She’s over there!” And another round of taunting, saucy flirting, and chasing was on.

Periodically, the Old Year would get taken off stage and be given a loud smack with a paddle on his liberally cushioned back. Still the Old Year kept coming back. Finally he got taken off stage and a “gunshot” went off, signaling that the Old Year had finally given up. The main characters took off their costumes.

Leo Ash’s 62-year-old mother, Sally Ash, Sugpiaq, said after the fights, people need to get rid of any ill will. It’s bad luck to start the new year with hard feelings. “Finally at the end, after they shoot, the men come back in and we sing the song ‘God Grant you Many Years,’ that's the name of the song. We sing it in Slavonic and Sugcestun, and then in English,” Sally Ash said.

Then the men waltz in a forgiveness dance. They dance with each other then with the women representing the 12 months of the new year.

At the end of the play, out of their costumes, the Old Year invites the New Year to waltz in the dance of forgiveness, while (at left) actors who played the parts of the Old Women and the MP and (at right) women who played the part of months in the new year clap in time to the music.
At the end of the play, out of their costumes, the Old Year invites the New Year to waltz in the dance of forgiveness, while (at left) actors who played the parts of the Old Women and the MP and (at right) women who played the part of months in the new year clap in time to the music. (Screen shot of video by Joaqlin Estus)
Men waltz together in a forgiveness dance to wipe away any hard feelings so everyone can start the new year free of ill will, and ready for a life of physical and spiritual well-being.
Men waltz together in a forgiveness dance to wipe away any hard feelings so everyone can start the new year free of ill will, and ready for a life of physical and spiritual well-being. (Screenshot of video taken by Joaqlin Estus)

Sally Ash, said, “It [the forgiveness dance] is to say ‘I'm sorry. If I got too, too crazy or something, I mean, not in a bad way, but you know, too goofy. Or if I embarrassed you or whatever,” said Ash. “So everybody's happy and that's what's happening. Then kids and couples from the audience join in. The audience can participate, dance with whomever they want to dance with, and it's the dance to do after midnight.”

Friday’s performance lasted 2.5 hours but Sally said six-hour performances, followed by hours of dancing, were more typical in her childhood. And that was just one of several winter “masking,” or masquerade dances.

“So we do that [masking] for those nights I think from the 10th until the 18th and then the 18th, that's the last dance. Then sometimes kids will go and jump in the water [ocean],” Sally Ash said. In times past, a dip in the ocean left a person fresh and clean for the new year. “In the old days they used to do that, but now they don't really have to,” Sally said. “Some kids who want to do it do.

“It’s all in good fun,” Sally said. “People would tease and bring goofy things to the play and try to get people to laugh and have a good time and, and everybody's happy, excited.”

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent based in Anchorage, Alaska. Follow her on Twitter: @estus_m. Email her at: jestus@indiancountrytoday.com.

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