hatched In a storm
In February, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is a frozen desert of ice and snow. Siberian winds race across the Bering Sea, slamming into the small Yupik Eskimo villages dotting Alaska’s western coast. Overnight, snow can pile high enough to block the doors to houses. Men sometimes have to climb out windows to shovel the stuff away. The Yupik word for February is Kanruyauciq-the time of heavy frost. With gale winds reaching 45 knots and temperatures plummeting below minus 20, it is a hard and bitter month.
So the Yupik have made it a month for dancing, for celebrating. On the first weekend in February last year, residents of Toksook Bay, on Nelson Island, invited their neighbors for three days of yuraq-dancing and feasting. The neighbors were there to witness and participate in the ceremony called tukerceciluteng-“letting one hatch.”
Friday was the night to “hatch” the eight children who had contributed to the subsistence and welfare of their families: Elayna, who was only two years old, picked blackberries from the tundra and put them in her grandmother’s pail. So did Helen and Tresa. Charlie shot a small bird with a BB gun while his older brothers, Gilbert and Jonathan, hunted geese with shotguns. Stanley hooked a halibut and Alaina caught a burbot-known locally as a lush fish.
The neighbors came in spite of a fierce arctic storm. A brief break in the weather on Friday allowed planes to land with guests, dancers and drummers from Bethel and Mekoryuk. Families also arrived on snowmachines from the closer surrounding villages-Newtok, Chefornak, Tununak and Nightmute. The houses in Toksook Bay bulged as the village population nearly doubled.
That night the school gym was packed. More than 400 people shed their heavy parkas and settled onto the bleachers and floor. The men and women who would drum and dance were decked out in fancy kuspuks, while female dancers wore beaded headdresses crowned with caribou fur and carried dance fans of braided tundra grass and reindeer ruff.
Their families brought the eight children forward, one by one. Surrounded by parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts, each child stood as the story of his or her contribution was narrated to the audience. Lavish piles of gifts were displayed, then set aside for later. Smaller presents were distributed-offerings of socks, gloves, candy and aqutaq, Eskimo ice cream. And then the children danced. Accompanied by their parents and relatives, the children performed dances created especially for the occasion. The youngsters danced hesitantly, keeping their eyes glued on mom, dad or grandmother while trying to imitate their movements. At the end of each dance the audience clapped in approval. The people were signaling their acceptance of these children as contributing members of the community.
“It is our tradition to do this with each child when they contribute something to eat,” said Joe Asuluk, Elayna’s grandfather. “We want to celebrate them.” Asuluk is president of Nunakauiak Yupik, Toksook Bay’s traditional council, and chief organizer of the weekend. He began planning the dance the previous year. The presenting families did likewise, creating the dances and gathering the gifts they would distribute.
After the children were “hatched,” each visiting village presented a dance. The women, in their fancy gear, stood poised while the men sat behind them, their hooped drums held out in front of them. Their sound boomed across the gym as the dancers began swaying in time to the Yupik songs. It was close to midnight before the drums fell silent.
Saturday was for visiting. Friends and relatives from other villages moved between houses, stopping for tea, conversation, a meal. The sound of snowmachines roaming the village roared over the howling wind while the snow blew sideways, stinging faces and piling drifts even higher.
That night the gym was jammed once again. Each village presented its best dances. Sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, each one told a story of some event or tradition. The Yupik say that long ago, when villages still warred against each other, their leaders decided to compete with dances instead of battles. Whether true or not, there remains a subtle effort to out-do one another with drums and dance.
The villagers from Mekoryuk received an especially warm reception. It was only their second year of dancing-the revival of a tradition lost when missionaries suppressed the dances many decades ago. Their leader, Howard Amos, grinned in triumph behind his huge drum. At the front of Mekoryuk’s dancers, 6-year-old Ruben Richards charmed the crowd beneath the carved puffin on his wooden headdress.
On Sunday afternoon the gifts were distributed. “In the old times they did it so the women who had no husbands could still have food,” Asuluk said. “They wanted to make sure the elders had enough to live on and so they gave them things.”
As the guests from other villages arrived, they were seated around the perimeter according to age, men on one side, women on the other. The gifts were arranged in the center. On the men’s side were rows of axes and shov4els, wooden sleds, a blackfish trap, rifles, work gloves, and sleeping bags. On the women’s side were potholders, plastic bowls, bolts of cloth, wolf pelts cut into strips, disposable diapers, crates of oranges, and cases of Crisco. The men from Toksook Bay began giving it all away, starting with the eldest guests, working to the youngest. They handed out everything-coffee, toilet paper, sugar-by the end, even the cardboard boxes were gone. With the dances over and the gifts distributed, the ancient ceremonies were concluded.
The yuraq had ended; the storm hadn’t. The snow and wind blew wildly as the visitors waited to return home. On Monday night a group gathered in Toksook Bay’s community hall to sing gospel songs while waiting out the storm. By Tuesday morning the storm was dying and a steady line of snowmachines streamed away from the village. Despite continuing strong winds, planes began arriving. One loaded with passengers was caught by a gust as it attempted to take off. The nose dipped and the wings wobbled before the plane was tossed upside down. Fortunately, it landed in soft snow and, except for a few cuts and bruises, everyone was OK.
The dances at Toksook Bay were a great success. Even before the weekend ended, the people were talking about the schedule of upcoming yuraqs in other villages. For this is Kanruyauciq, the month of heavy frosts, when everybody dances.
Copyright Morris Communications Mar 2005
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.