Community revives traditional songs, dances at senior centre

Old ways rule at Elder Palace


CAMBRIDGE BAY – With every seat taken at Cambridge Bay's elders centre, kids sit on the floor and cuddle up on their parents' laps to watch elders drum dance and sing in Inuinaqtun.

Elders Miriam Aglukkaq of Gjoa Haven; and Alisa Kameemalik, Jose Angutingunirk of Kugaaruk, who are both wearing black and white traditional parkas, sing songs late into the evening.

Their voices grow hoarse. But eager dancers keep picking up the drum from the middle of the floor until it's 11 p.m. and everyone has to go home.

This was the scene for two October evenings at the modest building in Cambridge Bay, which is known as the Elders Palace.

Elders from around the Kitikmeot region came to Cambridge Bay for a drum dance workshop organized by the Kitikmeot Inuit Association during its annual general meeting.

The get-together allowed the elders to perform, exchange information and discuss what their next steps should be to revive some of the oldest songs and drum dancing traditions in the region.

Drum dancing was first identified as a language preservation project in June 2006 at an Inuinnaqtun language conference, remembers Julia Ogina, the programs coordinator at the KIA.

"When you put action to it, you remember it," Ogina says. "Drum dancing is fun, and it's interactive."

Ogina, who co-authored a book called The Northern Copper Inuit with the late anthropologist, Richard G. Condon, is a ­former language and culture teacher.

Ogina, 46, originally from Ulukhaktok (formerly known as Holman) says her first memory as a child goes back to a time when her parents attended a drum dance at her great-grandfather's house.

"As like everywhere, drum dance for a number of years was not openly practiced, but the elders remembered the songs and stories, which they started to practice again on a regular basis in Holman in the mid-90's," she says.

Still, like many in her generation, Ogina never learned to drum dance herself.

"Even to today, I still find it difficult to get up and dance. I prefer to sing and learn the stories," she says.

Ogina says she and even elders in their 60s and 70s have a lot to learn about Inuinaqtun and the language used in songs. Ogina says she's constantly learning new terms and ways of speaking, just by listening and learning the drum dance songs and stories.

For example, animals and people are never referred to directly in the songs, "out of respect," Ogina says.

And also because gossiping was taboo, singers didn't name a person or animal directly in old traditional songs.

"For animals in drum dancing songs, you don't say tuktu. You describe it- the animal with the big horns, the animal in the large herd," she explains.

In the past, singing and drum dancing marked important events like the return of the sun.

Special clothing was also a part of the festivities. Dancers wore fancy dance caps, made from strips of skin from caribou and the common loon and decorated with weasel-fur.

The dance cap was worn by men or women and passed from one dancer to another, with a dancer's skill judged by how he or she set the weasel skin tassels spinning.

A dance hat from the Kitikmeot – now in a southern museum collection- featured a head of loon, a fast-flying bird associated with a shaman's sharp vision. When worn, dancers acquired both the loon's speed and vision.

Today this dance hat is rare as there is only one community where the style of dance, which requires the use of this dance hat, is still practiced.

Many of drum dance traditions and songs were lost over the years, as missionaries frowned on their strong ties to shamanism. All but the oldest elders forgot them, Ogina says.

But for the past two years, the KIA, working closely with elders, has been trying to rebuild the drum dancing traditions in the Kitikmeot and use drum dancing as a way to strengthen and pass on the Inuinnaqtun language.

Their project to use drum dancing as a way to strengthen Inuinnaqtun then received support from the KIA, the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, the Inuvialuit Development Corp, BHP Heritage fund, Shell Petroleum and Northwest Territories ­Literacy Council.

Working as community coordinators, Ogina, Roy Inuktalik of Kugluktuk and Emily Kudlak from Ulukhaktok collected their communities' songs and drum dancers though audio interviews and film.

They transcribed songs and stories, which was in itself a learning experience for Inuktalik who had never written down Inuinaqtun before.

Elders now support a plan for a much larger project to produce a digitized catalogue with photographs and personal reflections, meanings and history – which will also allow songs to be transferred to iPods.

For the moment, Ogina is doing what she can to keep drum dance traditions alive in Cambridge Bay. She and her spouse Jerry Puglik meet weekly with a core of 15 dancers of all ages, from babies to adults, who learn stories and songs in Inuinaqtun along with the dancing.

The Cambridge Bay drummers have performed at the KIA's annual feasts, at the Alianait! music festival and for visiting cruise ships.

Puglik helps maintain the group's drums, while Ogina helps the women learn how to sew the traditional dance clothes.

Ogina's only regret? She says she wishes she had started this type of work a long time ago, when people were still living their old way of life, when they were "born in an igloo, used a qulliq for heat, light and cooking daily, only had skin clothing and followed the migration of animals in order to survive."

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