Alaska Natives restoring culture outlawed by missionaries

Bobby Wells has lived all his life in the remote Alaska village of Noorvik, where the Eskimo dancing of his ancestors was banned by Quaker missionaries a century ago as primitive idolatry.

Now Wells, 53, and other residents of Noorvik have wholeheartedly embraced the ancient practice outlawed in the Inupiat Eskimo settlement. “This is the way God made us, to express our thankfulness to him with dancing,” Wells said.

The belief of traditional dancing as somehow evil, however, remains deeply ingrained in scores of Native villages around the state. But some communities have broken away from that ideology in recent decades. One by one, they have resurrected the old dances and songs of the long ago past, along with culture camps and language immersion programs.

Noorvik’s decision to lift the ban last fall came after residents learned they would be the first in the nation to be counted in the 2010 U.S. Census. The idea had been kicked around before, but this time locals wanted to make it a reality for a celebration with visiting census representatives and other officials.

Tribal leaders formally approved the proposal after it received the blessing of the Noorvik Friends Church, despite opposition from a few elders. It’s a huge change because dancing had never been done in the current location of Noorvik, which means “a place that is moved to” in Inupiaq.

To learn the long forgotten moves, village leaders hired dancers from other villages for a week of intense lessons that led to frequent practice sessions at the Noorvik school. One of the instructors is 19-year-old Richard Atoruk, from the nearby hub town of Kotzebue. He has since moved to Noorvik to continue teaching and to enroll at the school as a senior.

But too many villages continue to cling to the oppressive legacy left by Western missionaries, according to Theresa Arevgaq John, a Yup’ik Eskimo and Native studies professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Indigenous people saw the destruction of their sacred traditions, including shamans, who were revered as spiritual leaders empowered by the creator with skills and tools to communicate with the spirit world to ensure the welfare of communities. Dancing had nothing to do with devil worship, John said.

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