Project: A Time To Dance Again
Grantee: Old Harbor Alliance
Written by: Melissa Berns

‘A Time to Dance, Again’ is a program that was developed by the Old Harbor Alliance, our local non-profit, through a grant with the CIRI Foundation, Alaska State Council on the Arts, and many sponsors and supporters. Melissa Berns, Alliance Board Member and OHNC Project Manager coordinated the program in Old Harbor.

This program allowed for youth and community members to participate in regularly instructed Alutiiq dancing, ivory carving, headdress making, regalia making, drum making and mask making workshops all leading up to a dance festival. From July 2016 through March 2017 the Old Harbor Alliance held regularly scheduled Alutiiq dance practice led by Lena Amason-Berns.

The ‘Time to Dance, Again’ program was conceived and planned by community leaders who want to perpetuate Alutiiq dancing in Old Harbor. The Old Harbor Alliance held several meetings with artists and representatives from Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor, Old Harbor Native Corporation and Old Harbor School to plan and develop this program. Our youth had the opportunity to practice traditional Alutiiq dances and made new masks for performing at camp and at community events.

Through this program the participants learned respect for themselves, their culture, their community and their history. By practicing traditional dancing, participants cultivated pride in their Alutiiq culture, learning about their language, the origin of songs, their historical meaning, and the cultural significance behind movements. With this knowledge participants developed a sense of heightened pride in being Alaska Native and enhanced awareness of their cultural heritage.

The Old Harbor Alliance collaborated with the Kodiak Island School District and the City of Old Harbor to utilize school facilities. In September 2016, Master Artist Coral Chernoff led a three-day workshop teaching students ivory carving techniques for the creation of ivory rings, beads and jewelry.

Beginning in November 2016, artists Melissa Berns and Zora Inga led a beading workshop to create headdresses for students and community members. This workshop took place over a three month period at the Old Harbor Native Corporation office and resulted in the creation of 21 unique and beautiful woman’s headdresses and bands as well as 5 men’s headbands.

In March 2017, Master Carver Drew Michael provided a lesson to our students on the history and cultural significance of ceremonial masks created and used by Alaska Native cultures. Participants engaged in the “What is My Story Project,” where students reflected upon their personal lives, families, surroundings, nature, spirituality and community. The two week long intensive workshop concluded with each student carving a personalized mask depicting their individual life story.

Also in March, Master Artist Phillip Charette from the Alaska Native Heritage Center led an Alutiiq Bentwood Drum Workshop. This four day labor intensive workshop ran from 10am – 11pm each day. During this time students and community members learned techniques for making bentwood Sugpiaq style drums. Each participant completed the course, resulting in the creation of 19 traditional Sugpiaq drums.

All of these workshops led up to the Old Harbor Alliance’s Alutiiq Dance Festival held in conjunction with Old Harbor’s Annual Respect March. “A Time to Dance, Again,” consisted of traditional lamp lighting ceremony by elders and youth; an opening drum celebration; the sharing of traditional stories and dance by local dancers and guests from around the island and state; project presentations; a Sugpiaq History Presentation by Dr. Alisha Drabek; a Sugpiaq Art History Presentation by Alvin Amason; a panel discussion lead by Allison Warden focused on song writing and choreography featuring Lena-Amason Berns, Olga Rowland, Alisha Drabek and Candace Branson; a dance exchange lead by the Suna’q Alutiiq Dancers; and a traditional foods potlatch.

The closing night included an Honoring Celebration recognizing community specific Dance Ambassadors, Culture Bearers and Youth Leadership, as well as Regional Cultural Guardians. The evening concluded with a united dance performance involving all festival attendees and a mask transformation celebration.

The mask transformation celebration featured a large mask carved by Melissa Berns during the mask carving workshop with Drew Michael. This mask represented the connection of our people to the environment, cultural traditions, our rich history and aspirations for the future. Festival participants were asked to take part in this celebration by tying a ribbon to the mask’s hoop representing their hopes, dreams and prayers. As once celebrated by our ancestors, when the mask burned it transformation from wood to fire, smoke and ash. The mask carried prayers and wishes for healing, cultural progression and resurgence in Sugpiaq pride into the universe and spirit world.

The morning following the mask transformation ceremony Tara Stiller, Alliance Board Member, wrapped up the weekend events with a talking circle. Participation in the talking circle allowed festival participants the opportunity to reflect upon the experiences of the week. Individuals shared personal struggles and successes and participated in an open dialogue regarding cultural connectedness and dreams for the future.

This project was truly inspiring and initiated an island wide dance festival and revitalization of Alutiiq dance and culture in the community. Through dance, our community became more connected to one another through Alutiiq language, stories and cultural connections. The workshops, events and festival allowed participates to come together to dance and celebrate culture in a healthy environment. It elevated a strong collective spirit for dance and sense of community – A Time to Dance, Again!