Festival of Native Arts at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks

Festival of Native Arts at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks

Blue Tarpalechee, a member of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, has been Vision Maker Media’s Project Coordinator since 2012. Blue serves in a project lead capacity on two ongoing initiatives.

Date Posted: 
2013-04-02 11:32

Blog Series:


What does Growing Native mean to you? That is a question we posed to the Growing Native Advisory Council as we went through pre-production. The answers we received were varied, but connected – it’s growing us as a people in a way that sustains us as a people, it’s taking things that we knew and that worked in the past and building on that, it’s illustrating the interconnectedness of everything that we do. Growing Native is understanding our past in a very deep way; really coming to realize the nature of the challenge of our present; and beginning to think creatively and transformatively for what we need to be doing for our future. With each story we share, we hope to convey these ideas to audiences in an honest and respectful way.

The Festival of Native Arts at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks is one such story. This festival, and others like it, has the unique opportunity to bring multitudes of people together in one place to share their enthusiasm and respect for their cultures. Singers, dancers and artisans from across the state of Alaska come to the UAF campus for three nights of cultural celebration, and the event is organized and ran entirely by students.

From the Festival website –

This tradition began in 1973, when a group of University of Alaska Fairbanks students and faculty (representing a variety of colleges and departments) met to consider a spring festival focused on the artistic expressions of each Alaska Native culture. In less than three months, perhaps for the first time in Alaska, Native artists, craftspeople and dancers from all major Native culture groups gathered together at UAF to share with each other, the University community and Fairbanks their rich artistic traditions.

As the student’s prepared for the 40thAnniversary, I caught up with one of our interview subjects for the episode, Marina Anderson (Tlingit/Haida), who would be emceeing the evening’s events. “This is the largest student run event in UAF history,” Anderson observed, “and this is the longest Festival we’ve had in almost 20 years. It used to go four or five days, but then it was cut down to two for a long time. Now that it’s back up to three days, and possibly four days next year, I think that really speaks to the growth and support the Festival has attained.”  That support is evident when you look around the Festival. Bustling crowds of visitors jockey for position at the artist tables set up in the main hall outside the dance auditorium, while dance groups anxiously await their turns to be led to the ready room for last minute run-throughs before their performance.

But this isn’t some flash in the pan visual extravaganza. These dances and songs have deep, personal meaning to the performers and oftentimes with the audience members themselves. I spoke with Dr. Theresa John (Yupik), a professor at UAF, and she told me, “These songs and dances are the pathway to passing down knowledge and healing for our people. The language, our stories, our words… these things are embedded in our dances and they create a connection to our history.” Dr. John, who has been involved with the Festival since its inception in 1973, told me that the Festival came about at a critical time at the University. The Native students were struggling to find their place in the larger community, and felt disconnected from their homes. The Festival came in and helped change all that.

“Students now take pride in who they are and where they come from,” dancer Marjorie Tahbone (Inupiaq) offered. Tahbone is former Miss Indian World 2011 from Nome, and she dances with UAF student dance group Inu-Yupiaq. This group is unique in that it combines the cultures of the students, who have become like a family, Tahbone says. “In some cases, dancing was banned in some villages, and as a result there are fewer songs for them to learn. The diversity on display at the Festival really uplifts the spirit, through watching you can see a little bit about others’ traditions.”

Anderson echoes this sentiment, adding “the Festival really built character for a lot of the students who participated. I have one friend who really came out of his shell over the course of the Festival. At first, he would be dancing and he would take his glasses off. He’s blind as a bat without them, so he took them off so he couldn’t see the audience and get embarrassed. By the last night, he was dancing with them on. That’s the kind of strength and pride that the Festival represents.”

The Festival of Native Arts, and by extension other programs that exist to promote Native culture, has represented a steady shift of focus on the role of culture in the classroom. Culture was once something either indifferently omitted or even violently repressed in the classroom. Now, culture in the classroom is celebrated. “About time, that’s what I’m saying!” Tahbone remarked, adding “That shift has and will continue to create a ripple effect that will change the way youth think about themselves to the point that now we are comfortable and proud of being Native.”

To illustrate that ever expanding “ripple effect” that Tahbone mentioned, look no further than the Fairbanks Native Association’s Children’s Performance. The Fairbanks Head Start works with dozens of little ones for their debut dance every Festival, and they have been doing it for years. Each batch of children grows up having the experience of Festival, and knowing that their culture has a place in the larger community, a place they can be proud of. “This joining of generations together is symbolically critical,” Dr. John stressed to me, “because in that time and place, when people gather together, despite being busy teachers or busy students or just busy… when people gather together, our ancestors join us and celebrate with us, reuniting us.”

As the Festival draws to a close, the “Heartbeat of the Drum” ceremony takes place. Each dance group sends out a drummer and they surround the auditorium. Singing in unison, the audience rises to their feet. It is in this moment that Dr. John’s words seem to resonate with crystal clarity. The steady beat of the drum reflects the unity of purpose that each person in that room represents. Times may change, people will come and go, but the beat of the drum continues. It sustains. It is past, present and future. It is Growing Native in the best possible way.

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