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  • Bethany Buckingham

Cultural Gala

University of Alaska, Mat-Su Campus - Young culture bearers from around the circumpolar north educated and entertained a captivated audience at the Glenn Massay Theater in one of the last large cultural events of the Arctic Winter Games.  These thirty-three representatives brought professionalism and dedication to sharing their culture with the community.

“It touches your soul,” said Terri Lawson, an audience member.  “They all have amazing gifts to share.”

The evening began with seventeen local youth from Mat-Valley Dance, split between the two gala shows, entertaining the crowd dressed as chickadees flitting and twittering around the theater, from the stage to the aisles and back again.  They were stopped by many for photo opportunities.

The chickadees waved and glided off stage and the lights dimmed.  Erin Tripp and Rio Albert, co-directors of the gala, opened the event with a land acknowledgement to the Ahtna and Dena’ina Dene who have stewarded this area of Benteh and Nuutah for thousands of years, offering respect to the Elders past and present and to the current Tribal leaders.

Tylour Miller Fisher or TMO, the Director of the collaborative piece, explained that all the performers combined their creativity and passion into one final performance that they developed and practiced during this week. 

The lights dimmed again, and pow wow music began, ushering in the first performance of the night.  Team Alberta North, dressed in regalia and dancing traditional pow wow, invited the audience to settle into the gala space.  With fringe swaying, and fancy footwork, nineteen-year-olds Kassiandra Hamelin and Melaney Scott, competitive pow wow dancers, brought energy to the night dancing down the aisles to the stage.  Their scarves twirled and floated through the air, centering the audience on the cultural exchange at the heart of the gala.

Silence ensued as they exited, and the lights returned to the stage where Team Nunavut dazzled with throat singing and drum dancing.  The sound of voices raised in harmony echoed off the walls mixing to create a song that enveloped the audience in a truly northern experience.  The Inuksuk Drum Dancers include Ella Estey, Mia Maurice, Miria Quassa, Jaia Healey Arearok, Aura Kwon and Taiga Las, under the direction of Dr. Mary Piercey-Lewis.  They chose a selection of traditional and contemporary Inuit songs from across Nunavut, connecting with their audience and sharing Inuit traditions, values, and language.

Junnama Ole Mahtte of Team Sápmi shared a selection of joiks including the national Sápmi joik.  Another performance was of a goodbye to the mountains joik written as Sápmi from Russia were fleeing to Finland after World War II.  Mahtte explained that during his stay here in Alaska, a joik came to him in a dream about the mountains, nature, and land of the Mat-Su area.  He said he had to write it down and offered it to the people, singing his Alaska joik to a captivated audience.

Team Yukon bounded onto the stage in flannel using diverse song and movement to tell the story of life in the north.  Theater for Young People includes Luca Spires, Michael Gwynne-Thompson, Andrew Woolridge, Heidi Vallier, Ezra Baker, and Cameron Greer, under the direction of Cultural Manager, Jerry Woolridge.  This group is committed to sharing the story of how fortunate they feel to be young in the Yukon. 

Pow wow music began, and the colored lights flashed up as Team Alberta North returned to the stage dancing Women’s Fancy, which represents the opening of the cocoon when the butterfly emerges.

The stage grew dark, and Team Kalaallit Nunaat took the stage in an original show created from scratch in the span of 10 days.  This work involved the audience as the performers moved through the aisles dressed in black with black and red face paint.  They encouraged the audience to react to the team however felt natural.  Some audience members were unsettled by the slow movements and loud calls from the performers, while others laughed and reacted back to the artists.  Merging their unique strengths and skills, Lili Karlsen, Petra Bidstrup, Louisa Ignatiussen, Poul-Erik Kristiansen, Qarsog Rasmussen and AJ Korneliussen created an eerie but bewitching performance.

Team Nunavik prepared the stage for an acrobatic marvel with a selection of pieces ranging from music, singing, throat-singing, circus arts, dance, and theater.  Using activities such as dancing, playing, camping, fishing, listening to stories from elders and hunting, they created a snowbound landscape in which they connected to the audience.  Moving seamlessly from acrobatics to throat-singing on stilts, to team aerial acrobatics to synchronized twirling, Team Nunavik dazzled the audience.  This performance was a creative collaboration from Leah Qavavauk, Siasi Ulluria Padlayat, Sarali Angnatuk, George Johannes, Connie Ittukallak, and Jacqueline Tulugak with artistic counselors Rebecca Devi Leonard and Tommy Putulik. They were inspired by their answers to the question, ‘What is Culture?’ in Nunavik.

Pow wow music brings heat and healing to the stage as Team Alberta North returns with another beautifully executed dance.

A lone performer emerges onto the stage with a single fiddle.  With the spotlight focused on her, Penelope Mercredi delighted the audience with her fiddling for Team Northwest Territories.  Mercredi has been fiddling since 2018 and is a member of the Aurora Fiddle Society’s Fiddle Cats, a performance group for the past three years.  The audience enjoyed her performance.

The sounds of metal cones ushered in Team Alberta North with a Women’s Jingle, a healing dance that originated from the Ojibwa tribes.

Team Alaska from the Alaska Native Heritage Center Dance Group concluded the individual performances with three works incorporating song and dance.  One was the seal boy which is based on a story about a boy who lived with the seals.  The seals gave him love and the knowledge of how we should be living with nature.  Dancers Peter Pilak Griggs, Mandy Nan’iq Peters, and Dustin Moses, along with Cultural Manager Mari Nauraq Hansell and Pamyua artist Ossie Kairaiuak performed for the audience.

The collaborative performance saw all the teams come together mixing cultures, songs, movements, and voices to one central performance.  The Kalaallit Nunaat team mixed singing with the team NWT fiddler to draw in the throat singers from teams Nunavut and Nunavik.  Team Yukon blended voices with Team Sápmi joik while Team Alaska drummed and danced with Team Alberta North.  They became one northern team no longer divided by culture or language and circled the stage before flooding into the audience.  Smiles and high-fives ensued as they danced and sang in the aisles bringing the audience to their feet to dance and share with the young culture bearers.

These young culture bearers are the future, keeping traditions alive, but also coming together to make a better world for us as one voice.

In the end they were all one spirit, rising strong!


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