NOORVIK - Bobby Wells has lived all his life in this remote Alaska village, where the Eskimo dancing of his ancestors was banned by Quaker missionaries a century ago as primitive idolatry.
Now Wells, 53, and other residents of Noorvik have wholeheartedly embraced the ancient practice outlawed in the Inupiat Eskimo settlement, which was established in 1914.
"This is the way God made us, to express our thankfulness to him with dancing," Wells said.
The belief of traditional dancing as somehow evil, however, remains deeply ingrained in scores of Native villages around the state. But some communities have broken away from that ideology in recent decades. One by one, they have resurrected the old dances and songs of the long ago past, along with culture camps and language immersion programs.
Mike Ulroan can't imagine life without dance. It was already revived in the Cup'ik Eskimo village of Chevak when he was born 21 years ago, long after the practice was prohibited by Russian Catholic missionaries. Dancing has always been a constant for Ulroan, even after he left four years ago to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage. In Alaska's largest city, he dances with several groups.
"It's just a way to make me feel happy," he said. "With the movements we do, we push away bad spirits and keep away sickness."
Noorvik's decision to lift the ban last fall came after residents learned they would be the first in the nation to be counted in the 2010 U.S. Census. The idea had been kicked around before, but this time locals wanted to make it a reality for a celebration with visiting census representatives and other officials.
Tribal leaders formally approved the proposal after it received the blessing of the Noorvik Friends Church, despite opposition from a few elders. It's a huge change because dancing had never been done in the current location of Noorvik, which means "a place that is moved to" in Inupiaq.
"I don't speak for the church, but in my own view we're going to come to a place in the afterlife where we sing and dance to the Lord," said church pastor Aurora Sampson. "While we are on this earth we might as well practice."
The primary dancers are students, who quickly honed their newfound skills to put on a rousing performance at the census festivities in January, complete with Native singing and drums.
"I like it. It's fun," said 16-year-old Tori Newlin. "It's something to do."
To learn the long forgotten moves, village leaders hired dancers from other villages for a week of intense lessons that led to frequent practice sessions at the Noorvik school. One of the instructors is 19-year-old Richard Atoruk, from the nearby hub town of Kotzebue. He has since moved to Noorvik to continue teaching and to enroll at the school as a senior.
For Atoruk, dancing is a way to tell stories for all occasions, weddings, funerals, birthdays, the subsistence lifestyles of people who live off the land as Noorvik residents do. Motions and songs represent the movements of fishing, ice hopping, even traveling by snowmobile. And as far as Atoruk is concerned, shamanism is an important part of his people's spiritual culture, not a satanic tool.
"I think we lost a lot of our history because the missionaries came," he said. "Now it's coming back."
But too many villages continue to cling to the oppressive legacy left by Western missionaries, according to Theresa Arevgaq John, a Yup'ik Eskimo and Native studies professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Indigenous people saw the destruction of their sacred traditions, including shamans, who were revered as spiritual leaders empowered by the creator with skills and tools to communicate with the spirit world to ensure the welfare of communities. Dancing had nothing to do with devil worship, John said.
"It was our only way of prayer," she said. "Can you imagine someone coming in and saying your way is wrong?"
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