Alaskan Eskimo Songs and Stories - Part 4

Album 2, Side 2

Lorraine Donoghue Koranda with illustrations by Robert Mayokok
Published for the Alaska Festival of Music in Cooperation with BP Alaska Inc. by the University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.

Play song


Performed by


Native Words



Bench Dance Song Dick Bolt, Joseph and Nellie Sikvaoyungak
Music location


Eskimo dancers, even when they are dancing together, never hold hands or touch each other. Each dancer dances alone. The women's motions are very graceful, and the movement of the body is usually limited to a very small space. The knees are slightly bent, and the body moves in swaying and dipping motions in a most flowing and graceful style. The dancer takes very short, shuffling steps and does not move far during the course of the dance. Women generally keep their eyes modestly cast down in deference to the men who are performing.

The men dance with great vigor and strength, shifting their weight from one foot to the other and stamping in time to the music. Bold arm movements are used to underline the rhythm of the accompaniment or tell the story of the song. They hold their heads up, and the expressions on their faces as the dance mounts in excitement convey a sense of great masculine beauty and freedom. Often, if the music or story suggests it, a keen sense of humor is reflected on the dancer's face and those of the accompanying singers.

In addition to the Acting Dances, or Motion Dances, previously mentioned, there are Common Dances, or those in which anyone who wishes may dance, using any pattern of movement he desires. This type of dancing is also called a Muscle Dance, though the term may once have referred to an actual rippling of the muscles-a dance style mentioned in earlier days but now seen infrequently.

A very unusual kind of dancing originated at Diomede Island, became popular at Wales, and has been copied elsewhere on the mainland. This is the Bench Dance, in which the performers, usually women, are seated on a bench and move their arms and upper torsos in unison. Special songs are composed for the Bench Dances. The following "Bench Dance Song" from Point Barrow, sung by Joseph and Nellie Sikvaoyungak and Dick Bolt, was made in imitation of one from Wales. It was composed about a century ago by an old grandmother who sang it to amuse and instruct her grandchildren.
Umiak Paddling Song Blanche Lincoln
Music location

The next Bench Dance song, sung by Blanche Lincoln of Konebue, is performed as an umiak paddling song with appropriate motions by the seated dancers.
Womens Dance Song Rose Ann Negovanna and Nanny Kagak
Music location

Next is a song for a women's Motion Dance, sung by Rose Ann Negovanna and Nanny Kagak of Wainwright. The text consists of neutral syllables and does not tell a story.
Dance Mitt Song Hazel Omwari
Music location

The dances usually take place in the kazigi, which in the days long ago was the center of activity for all hunting rituals, ceremonies, storytelling, singing and dancing, and the training of young boys. At that time it was a haven for the men and boys of the village. The women entered only to bring food, to prepare the hall for rituals, or occasionally to participate in them. Today the social hall is a community center no longer restricted primarily to men's activities.

It was quite common for the village to have two or more competitive men's societies, each with its own kazigi. This situation is rarely found today, although there are still two active groups at Point Hope, the Kahmektook and the Ongnaseekseekah.

In the social hall, the drummers sit on the floor in a line, the singers gather behind them, and the dancers take the center. At the height of the performance the throbbing drums and the strident, nasal voices of the singers produce an almost terrifying effect. The non-Eskimo listener may at first be overwhelmed by the combined sounds, but is likely soon to be carried along the pulsating wave of sound and finally to have the impulse to join the performers. Visitors to the dance program are usually invited to join in the dancing.

A conspicuous element of the Eskimo's dancing costume is gloves. These may be highly ornamental gauntlet gloves, specially designed dance gloves with feathers on each fingertip, or just ordinary winter mittens or canvas work gloves. Anything will do as long as the hands are covered, although occasionally the gloves are held rather than worn. The Eskimos traditionally cover their hands when they dance, but they are uncertain as to the reason for this. One possible explanation they suggest is that the hands were covered as a gesture of respect to the spirits controlling weather, hunting, and animals, in whose honor the dances were originally performed. Another is that the gloves were a protection against contact with evil spirits.

A special song from St Lawrence Island honors the dance gloves. The father of the singer, Hazel Omwari, composed this song for a dancer friend as a gift that accompanied unusually handsome dancing gloves with amulets adorning them. The dancer was extremely proud of these mittens, which became a pattern for other St. Lawrence dance gloves.
Loon Dance Song 1 Dick Bolt and Joseph Sikvaoyungak
Music location

Ornamental dance gloves often had amulets made of bird beaks, ivory, or bone attached to them. These were good luck charms and also added a pleasant percussive sound as the dancer moved his hands. Such ornaments as empty shell cases were also sometimes used on the gloves for their tinkling metallic sounds.

A favorite adornment was the loon headdress. On a band fitting snugly around the dancer's head was fastened a dried loon head with beak. Loon feathers decorated the flaps which fell over the dancer's ears. This headdress was used in the Messenger Feast ceremonial dances and in the colorful Loon Dances of the north coast, in which the dancer used birdlike motions to imitate with great humor the proud movements of one of the most elegant of the world's birds, the Pacific (or Arctic) loon.

Two very ancient Loon Dance tunes from Point Barrow are sung by Joseph and Nellie Sikvaoyungak and Dick Bolt.

It is not known if there was a text for the songs. In any case, the words are no longer remembered, and the syllables are only for convenience in singing.
Loon Dance Song 2 Dick Bolt and Joseph Sikvaoyungak
Music location
King Loon Song John Oalanna
Music location

From King Island comes a very ancient "King Loon Song," sung by John Oalanna. A hunter has seen the beautiful, but raucous-voiced, bird. The text says: "What is this that I see? It is an animal or a bird? It is a King Loon. I wish I were able to sing just like that bird."
Masked Dance Song John Oalanna
Music location

The wolf head mask was an important part of the costume worn in the Wolf Dances for the Messenger Feast ritual. Other masked dances were performed for this festival and the Bladder Festival. The shaman, or someone directed by him, carved the masks, and because tradition demanded that they be destroyed after the ceremony, very few of them can be found now. Nevertheless, some have been preserved in museum collections, and copies of the old masks have been made by contemporary artists for sale to tourists.

The masks were highly creative, even surrealistic, representing animal heads, birds such as the loon, or comic human faces. Many were adorned with feathers, fur, or carved representations of animal or human parts. Some human face masks showed no ears, or lacked noses. Others had an ivory labret embedded in the cheek. In keeping with the theme of a man changing to an animal or an animal assuming human form there were many masks representing a face half human and half animal. Some of the masks were actually worn, but many were too large and heavy and were therefore suspended from the ceiling or held before the dancer's face by means of a handle attached at the bottom.

Many years ago ("four grandfathers ago") a shaman composed the following melody, sung by John Oalanna of King Island, for a humorous masked dance. The song and dance are part of a dramatic performance that depicts the battle of a good and an evil shaman who have come down from the clouds. The evil shaman wins, but sings this song to bring the good shaman back to life.
Spirit Dance Song Oliver and Olga Amouak
Music location

In the lower Yukon River region the women's graceful dancing is enhanced by the flowing movement of their finger mask fans, called "deyoomiet." These consist of a carved wooden handle that fits over two fingers like an ornate double ring and holds a fan made of the beautiful feathers of a white owl or an egret. A dance that employs both these fans and dance masks is performed to the following song, composed in 1929 by Oliver Amouak in imitation of the lower Yukon festival dances. It is sung by Oliver and Olga Amouak.

In the old days these dances were sometimes accompanied by rattles made of wood and filled with small pebbles. Such rattles are now extremely rare, and they may never have been widely used, but the rattling effect of ornamented dance gloves was common. Except for the box drums used originally for the Messenger Feast ceremonial dances, the only instrument used to accompany the songs and dances is the tchauyuk, a drum constructed much like a tambourine with a short handle.
Yugiyama ullagamken
. . . qiguirpagemek
My spirit-person I go to you
. . . from a big squirrel
Tuning Of The Drum Rose Ann Negovanna and Nanny Kagak
Music location

The tchauyuk is a hoop of hardwood (spruce) about two feet in diameter, covered on one side with the membrane from a whale or walrus stomach or liver stretched tautly and securely tied with sinew. To this is attached a bone or wooden handle, sometimes ornately carved. The drum, which is held at about the height of the drummer's face is beaten with a slender spruce or willow wand. Both the rim and the drum head may be touched simultaneously by this wand, producing a combination of tap and resonant vibration of the membrane. The tapping and beating may also be alternated. On the north coat of Alaska the drum is struck from underneath, but in the area near the mouth of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers it is generally struck on the upper surface, especially for ceremonial dances. The drum is generally played by men, but women are not excluded from playing it.

The drums are not tuned, but before a performance starts the drummer dampens the drum head with water, causing it to become more resilient and making it less likely to break. This process also affects the tone and is sometimes referred to as "tuning."

One of the most amusing songs is a drum tuning song composed to honor a missionary in a north coast village who had taught some of the Eskimos the "do, re, mi" syllables. The song uses these syllables as a text, but with no reference to their original musical function. The "Tuning of the Drum" is sung by Rose Ann Negovanna and Nanny Kagak of Wainwright.
Kobuk Women's Dance Song Paul Green Dancing skill is greatly appreciated among the Eskimos, and dancing is a highly competitive art form. Dance contests are held to determine the best dancer in the village. The names of the outstanding singers and dancers are well known along the coast. The Eskimos hold an annual summer dance and game festival which they call the "Eskimo Olympic Games." One of the most sought-after honors is that of being considered the best dancer at this contest.

Among the people of the Seward Peninsula and Kotzebue Sound area can be heard great praise for the Kobuk women dances. The Kobuk women dance so gracefully that they remind one of "the willows bending in the current of the stream," said one admirer. They hold their dance mitts and shake them like leaves on the willow trees. Kobuk dancing, once seen, is impossible to forget. The following is one of the Kobuk songs for the women's dance. It is sung by Paul
Green of Kotzebue.