Wales celebrates 17th Annual Kingikmiut Dance Festival
Last weekend, the 17th Annual Kingikmiut Dance Festival took place in Wales. Starting on Friday, September 2 and lasting until the early morning hours of Labor Day Monday, the three-day celebration of culture, music and dance brought together family and friends from all across Alaska.
This year there were nine dance groups, making it the largest festival with the most groups ever, said Anna Oxereok of the Native Village of Wales IRA Council and one of the organizers of the event.
With a grant from the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation and other sponsors, the village was able to raise enough money to charter in the Wainwright Dance Group, Utuqqagmiut, this year.
The festival was not without a few setbacks, as Wainwright missed Friday’s events when their flight was cancelled due to fog, and power outages turned the festival dark several times throughout the weekend. But, the Wainwright group made it to Wales on Saturday and the power outages only lasted for seconds at a time.
In a town of less than 200 people, accommodating nine visiting groups as well as guests, friends and family can be a challenge. Anna Oxereok said the hardest part was finding housing for everyone, although everything worked out. Many of the groups stayed in classrooms in the school, while others stayed as houseguests throughout the village. Oxereok and her sister Ellen Richard, expressed their joy at the large turnout this year and the overall good vibes of the event.
The Nome Nugget was a guest at the festival on Saturday, September 3 when all nine groups performed in the afternoon, starting after a late lunch. The organizers invited guests to participate in various door prizes, raffles and 50/50 drawings, and reminded everyone attending that the event was a drug and alcohol free festival.
The first group to dance was Shishmaref, who started off Saturday’s festivities with lively drumming and skilled dancers of all ages.
The King Island Dancers performed next, thrilling the crowd with great choreography, singing, and interesting props. They used oars during their “boat paddling song” and Bryan Muktoyuk Sr. and Jr., did a father-son walrus dance wearing carved masks.
The Gambell Iceberg Dancers followed, with lively pair dances and a wide variety of songs.
Teller Traditional was the last afternoon group to perform, with one of their elders, James Okpealuk, gaining great appreciation from the crowd with his dance routine.
Following the Teller group was a break for a potluck dinner.
After the dinner break, Tikigaq Traditional, from Point Hope, kicked off the rest of the evening events. Phyllis Frankson of Point Hope performed a moving solo dance that produced many cheers from the crowd. Next was the highly anticipated Wainwright Utuqqagmiut Dancers, who wore coordinated costumes and pleased the crowd with their different versions of the “Walrus” dance.
The Diomede group followed, after a short break for door prize drawings. The Diomede dancers, singers and drummers performed traditional bench dancing and displayed several rounds of energetic pair dances. Glen Iyasuk of Diomede said he has been drumming since he was a little boy. He sings and drums with three groups besides Diomede, and said he is always happy to be invited to join a new dance group.
Anchorage Kingikmiut came next, their female dancers all wearing matching purple costumes. They performed a dance they called the “Float Coat Song” song, mixing a traditional boat dance with a message of life jacket safety. Gregory Tungwenuk Nothstine of Anchorage said they have been working with the “Kid’s Don’t Float” campaign across Alaska to promote lifejacket use. He said the dance is a fun way to get young kids and their parents to help spread the message of youth water safety while at the same time connecting with the Kingikmiut culture.
The last group of the night was Wales, who finished off Saturday’s festivities well into Sunday morning. Sherman Richard, the emcee of the festival and one of the organizers of the event, performed numerous dances and invited many Wales residents as well as other group members to join in. As was the case with all nine dance groups, the ending numbers were an “invitational” and a chance for other dancers, singers and audience members to get out on the dance floor.
Seventeen years in the making, the Kingikmiut Dance Festival continues to be a successful Labor Day Weekend event for the town of Wales. After nearly six decades without dancing, the start of the festival was a reawakening for many residents. Tony Keyes, a long time resident of Wales, explained the importance of the event for the town and how it helps to keep their culture alive. He said before the festival started, many said that dancing was dead in Wales. Keyes said for 57 years, there was no dancing, no singing. But for Keyes, the dancing culture was just sleeping. Said Keyes, “You should never say something is dead, nothing is ever dead, that’s why I said it was sleeping, because now there has been a reawakening.”