Friday, February 1, 2008

Native Elvis and the Walrus

A year ago today I was flying to Alaska for my first winter expedition on the North Shore. During my stay I experienced 'Kivgiq', the Inupiat native "Winter Messenger Feast", which I write about in my forthcoming chapter in The Best Travel Writing 2008. An excerpt is below, followed by a short video clip of two dancers (but remember, the dancing went on for three nights!); the first dances a walrus, the second, Elvis moves fused with native mimes...Not to be missed! If you watch the video, be sure to crank the volume to maximum, as it was really, really loud!

"A thousand or more natives from across Polar Alaska and Canada had gathered: children, adults, teens and the elders, who told the legend of the Messenger Feast:"

"When the Inupiat were young and learning to live in this place, life was hard and they hunted all the time. But when they knew how to live, Eagle Mother taught them to drum and sing and dance, and how to build a large feasting house. She told them to invite neighbors to listen to the songs, and dance to the drums. The invitations were delivered by Messengers, who also made requests of the invitees: 'Here is what the sponsor of the feast, respectfully, wishes from you.'"

"Drums—fifteen at a time—beat slowly, directing the subtle movements of dancers’ bodies, a shoulder shrug, an arm or wrist gently turned. The slow beat was the invitation to let go, to be taken by the spirit of the dance. After a time, suddenly, like a bomb, the pace and volume increased—BOOM BOOM BOOM...BOOM BOOM BOOM—accompanied by wailing and chanting, as the dancers were taken, stamping their boots hard, locking their bodies in stiff postures of shock or terror. Sometimes there were sweeps, syncopated paddling motions, the communal pursuit of a whale. Sometimes arms were hauled joyfully towards the chest, pulling in a whale, sustenance for a whole village, starvation staved off or another season. There were pantomimes of hunger and plenty. Conflicts were acted out and resolved. And there was always respect for the land and its animals, the gravitational center of this culture around which all else revolved."

"These performances were as important to Inupiat survival as any harpoon or kayak; they were instructions for a proper life. How did they survive here? I’d asked. It was a question only a wholly-urbanized person could ask. How did they survive here? Easy. Keep your population low. Don’t mow down your resources. Manage the plants and animals so their populations will be healthy for your descendants, as your ancestors did for you. Be respectful of the land. It is not rocket science."

"And have a sense of humor! Some of the greatest applause at Kivgiq came for ‘Eskimo Elvis’, a dancer outfitted in a caped jumpsuit, sunglasses and pompadour. ‘E’ rocked the crowd with a fusion of Inupiat and Elvis moves complete with a karate-kick ending that sent the crowd through the roof. Kivgiq ended with solemnity, but laughing was just as important. Life is short, after all."

(c) 2008 by Cameron McPherson Smith


Charles Sullivan said...

I really like those stylized dance moves representing the different aspects of the hunt.

I like your point that these performances are just as important as a harpoon or a kayak for survival. In many ways these dances and music are a kind of artifact, just like material artifacts.

And that Elvis guy is great!

Cameron McPherson Smith said...

yep, i have hours of this on tape. now i need to manufacture hours in which to edit them! keep in mind the man announced as "Eskimo Elvis" was called that by the natives themselves. they do not like to be called Eskimos by outsiders, to whom they are Inupiat. but amonngs themselves they use the slightly otherwise-derogatory term "Eskimo." i know you didn't say anytjninga bout that, jkust a point i wanted to get down. cheers cameron

Cameron McPherson Smith said...

p.s. you wrote:

"I like your point that these performances are just as important as a harpoon or a kayak for survival. In many ways these dances and music are a kind of artifact, just like material artifacts."

that's right. it's why dawkins calls human culture "the extended phenotype". for archaeologists, any expression of culture--be it symbolic or material--is "culture". to sum up: the instructions about what the universe is like, and what you're supposed to do about it, that you recieve culturally (e.g. by teaching from parents and peers) is information contained in the human brain (and occaionally "external media, such as books") called "culture"; and the expression of that culture, the use of that information, is also culture -- and if the expresion is physical, e,g. artifacts, then it's "material culture".