Dancers of Ldakát Naax Satí Yátx’i face some high expectations.
The Native dance group, All Nations Children in English, is meant to provide young dancers with self esteem and pride in their culture. Children of any heritage can dance with the group until they graduate from high school, and founder and group leader Vicki Soboleff has been very invested in seeing that her dancers made it all the way through high school.
Barbara Dude attributes much of her success in her life to her involvement in the dance group and the maternal influence of Soboleff and the group’s assistant leaders.
Soboleff was the “strict mom.”
When Dude was suffering from “major senioritis” at the end of her high school career and sleeping through classes, Soboleff picked her up each morning — sometimes pulling her out of bed — and took her to school to make sure she finished.
That kind of support helped Dude to achieve the goals Soboleff and other group leaders had ingrained in the young dancers since they joined.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I was going to college,” Dude said. “It was just ‘when you go to college’ — that was always the message that we heard.”
Dude joined at around age 6 or 7, about six months after her mother died. She was raised by her grandmother — and arguably also by the dance group’s leaders.
Dude, now a college graduate, social worker and mother of two, assumed the role Soboleff had held for two decades when she became the dance group’s new leader on Saturday at a celebration for the group’s 20th anniversary.
“I’ve made a commitment to the dance group — for at least 20 years,” Dude said with a laugh. “I remind myself that they (the children) look to me for strength, knowledge and support. That makes the work meaningful as I watch them step out of their shells and watch the little ones transform into little leaders. It’s fun to watch because I experienced the same thing.”
Success may have come in part from the support of the dance group leaders, but it also came from connecting children to their culture.
Soboleff formed the group in 1995 when she was 32.
“I saw a need for children to have cultural pride and knowledge of self and family to help them in their self esteem and their attainment of success,” Soboleff said.
Soboleff was born and raised in Ketchikan and recalls being embarrassed when her grandmother made her perform Haida songs and dances at a junior high school assembly.
“I definitely felt uncomfortable about being Native because of racism that I felt,” Soboleff said. “The last thing I wanted to do was dance in front of my school.”
But you don’t argue with your grandma, Soboleff said with conviction. Later, pride in her culture would help her deflect racist comments and actions, and influence generations of children to draw strength from their Native culture.
She enlisted current Kiks.adi leader Ray Wilson to help when the group was still new. Wilson had grown up at a time when his culture had been quashed. When the group formed, Wilson was just learning the songs and dances himself. He tried to decline, saying he didn’t know enough, but Soboleff told him: “You know more than they do.”
Wilson and Soboleff believe the group has mitigated a lot of risk factors for children whose parents may have struggled through trauma related to poverty, abuse, substance abuse and more, stemming from generations of systemic racism.
“Their culture is their armor,” Wilson said.
They have observed that knowledge and pride in their Native culture helps children to be more successful.
“It helped bridge a gap I felt was still there. I experienced a lot of racism in life … and I observed that it was still affecting our children negatively. That’s why I really wanted to have a group for children,” Soboleff said. “To make sure they had a knowledge base and pride in themselves.”
Past leaders of the group beam at the children who have graduated from the group, who have gone to college, who have formed dance groups of their own, who have become leaders in their community. They beam at seeing a second generation populate the group, children of former dancers, like Dude’s 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. They beam at the young leaders who will soon go into the wider world.
Alison Ford, 16, is the lead drummer of ANC. Dude said she reminds her a lot of herself when she was that age.
“I know more about my culture and I know how to speak more Tlingit words, and (know) more songs. I’ve slowly been able to translate it into English with Vicki’s help,” Ford said. “I surprised myself in some ways. I didn’t really think I would get up to this point.”
She said a lot of people say Tlingit language and culture are dying, but she disagrees.
“Performing and doing this on a weekly basis brings it back,” Ford said.
Proof that the language is anything but dying, the dance group received two newly composed songs as gifts for the anniversary, one from Rose Willard and another from Alfie Price.
The group will be able to sing the songs and dance at future performances.
They can be found performing frequently at the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway in the summer. Katie Price, 16, said some of her friends have come to watch.
In the 20 years since the dance group started, Soboleff has observed improvements, both in the community’s attitude and in the self esteem of young Native people, though there is still room for further improvement.
Dude said her 7-year-old daughter was told at an after school program that “Tlingit is weird” by another young student.
She told her daughter: “Being Tlingit is who you are and some people just don’t know about Tlingit. Next time somebody says that to you, just say, ‘That’s who I am and always will be.’”
Price said she hasn’t experienced much negativity about her culture at school and said even if there are some people who may not think her involvement in the dance group is “cool,” she feels cool.
“Look what I know,” she said. “Look who I am.”
The All Nations Children dance group is raising money to attend the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October. Donations are welcomed. Dance Group Yaaw Tei Yi celebrated 15 years at the same event.