St. Michael revives traditional drumming and dancing
By Peter Loewi
At a break between songs, Elder Virginia Tom stood up in the St. Michael community gym and praised the young drummers and dancers. “They’re determined and willing to learn,” she said. Tom explained that the songs performed are from Stebbins, and Saint Michael songs, which were Inupiaq, have now mostly been lost.
“They’ll make their own songs someday,” she said.
After a brief pause, third grader Ryder Lockwood began to drum, singing alone into the packed room.
There were well over 100 people in the old gym in Saint Michael on Wednesday, April 27 for a community dinner and night of dancing. But the yuraq — Yupik for dance —was more than entertainment as it marked the end of a workshop led by acclaimed artist Aassanaaq “Ossie” Kairaiuak, member of Pamyua.
The workshop was a part of the Resilient Alaska Youth Americorps program, a project of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, or RurAL CAP. The program partners with tribes, schools and youth-serving organizations to hire local residents to host afterschool activities for 10 to 18-year-olds. In St. Michael, that person is Frankie B. Myomick, who saw a sign in the city offices for the program last summer. For years, he said, he had been wanting to work with young people, and then this came up.
“I mostly work trying to get our youth involved for their future. Tough times are here, and they just need mentorship,” Myomick said. “It’s a safe place for them to be themselves.”
Myomick said that the RurAL CAP AmeriCorps program provides a lot of great help, assisting with the planning and training throughout the year, helping getting equipment such as drum-making kits or seeds for a garden this summer. The workshop was only one part of his work, and other activities include helping the students read to the children in the Head Start program.
The theme of the RAY program is resilience, but that looks different depending on who you ask. Kairaiuak said that he is working with Kokhanok, Chevak, Nanwalek and St. Michael (aother Native Alaskan Artist, Danielle Larsgaard, is working with New Stuyahok and Ketchikan) to use culture to develop resiliency, which on one level makes societies safer and more prosperous. Myomick said that the program, and the resiliency it aims to build, is about getting youth ready for the future, through cultural activities and subsistence planning.
Pauline Richardson, bilingual teacher at the St. Michael School, has been using the same cultural skills to help the students weather the pandemic, starting in the spring of 2020 with socially distanced drumming and dancing. Principal Frank Stanek said that there had been no drumming or dancing in the school since at least 2007, when he arrived. When Richardson started it up, he said, “kids bought right in. It was a huge morale boost.” Every morning, one of Richardson’s students drives to Stebbins to pick up elders to help teach drumming and dancing to the students. When they arrive, David Otten, Joe Steve and Ron Kirk sit with the class as Richardson takes roll. She calls an English name, and the student responds with their Yupik name.
Kirk, who leads the Stebbins Drum and Dance Group, explained that when he moved to St. Michael at a young age, from Unalakleet, he spoke only Inupiaq and learned Yupik through song. Even by then, Yupik songs from Stebbins were being performed in St. Michael because the local songs had mostly been lost.
Through Richardson’s classes in school, Myomick’s activities afterschool and catalysts such as Kairaiuak, kids have come to talk about writing their own songs.
Kairaiuak said that the four days of workshop isn’t a lot, but it is a start. He works with kids on drawing skills, mask making with oven-bake clay, dancing and drum making. Drum making, he said, is “more tedious than they think, but worth it for them to go through it.” The dancing, he said, however, is the glue, which keeps kids engaged. There is the caveat, though, that they need to be caught up on their schoolwork to participate.
Kairaiuak says he tries to make the students feel attached to their culture and begin to feel like they are carrying on tradition. He used the Yupik word “Qaruqurluta,” meaning to support and encourage one another in a good way. Importantly, he said, he saw that the school and the community are already doing that. “One way to recreate that safety net is to engage our youth,” he said.
“I see our culture with so much potential,” Kairaiuak said.
Myomick encouraged community members of other villages who might be interested in helping youth to look into the program, which releases applications for next year later this month.
Liza Krauszer, Community Development Manager for RurAL CAP, said that the program aims to help young people build connections to culture, community, and the environment. To achieve this, they so far have hired local residents in 17 communities across the state. In the year ahead, she said that she looks forward to building partnerships with more rural schools, where youth are already gathered. “It’s basically an additional, local person who can focus on connecting with youth and doing cultural activities to have in the school,” she said.
Another integral part of the program are the tribes. In St. Michael, the IRA has been supporting Richardson’s classes, paying for the drummers to come from Stebbins, for example.
Robin Steve, president of the Saint Michael IRA, had been on her feet for hours, serving dinner to the community, dancing, and then tidying up. Sitting in the bleachers in a salmon-colored qaspeq and spiral ivory earrings, she said that when Myomick said he wanted to have an event, she asked if she should reach out to the Stebbins drummers. Steve explained that Stebbins had been keeping some of the St. Michael songs, and only in the last two years did they start being taught again here. “I hope that our culture is revived by continuing our first dances.”
“I’m really thankful Stebbins agreed to come over to sing their songs. It’s really nice to see the two communities get together. It helps people heal in so many ways,” she said.