Lead group unveils new dance today

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2008

A dance last performed in Southeast Alaska in the early 1900s is being brought back during Celebration 2008 by the Mt. St. Elias Dancers from Yakutat.

David Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David Sheakley / Juneau Empire

According to dance group leader George Ramos, the story, "The Little Boy From Under the Sea," was danced at a potlatch in Sitka in 1904 by his uncle, Jack Ellis.

It was the last potlatch in the region since Gov. John Green Brady, who was governor of the District of Alaska from 1897 to 1906, banned all dances and traditional Native gatherings shortly before the tribes got together, Ramos said.

"They asked Governor Brady if they could have just one more (potlatch), and he said yes," Ramos said. Ellis, then 14 years old, won a bracelet and two songs at the potlatch for the dance, Ramos said.

The story carries a message that you don't play with any kind of animal. As told by Ramos, it goes something like this:

A boy was in the habit of going around the beach picking up sand fleas, gathering them and moving them around the beach during the outgoing tide. A wave came and dragged him out to sea, and the boy stayed away for a long time.

When he came back, seaweed grew from the boy's face and he was covered in sea creatures such as crabs and octopuses. He was ashamed to come back, but his family surrounded him, danced and brought him back from the sea.

"We hope to do a good job of presenting it," Ramos said.

More than 50 dancers from Yakutat are in Juneau this week. They join about 2,000 other dancers from the region, Canada and the Lower 48 for Celebration 2008, which started Thursday. It is the largest cultural event in the state, according to organizers from Sealaska Heritage Institute.

In addition to dancing, the eventrecognizes Alaska Native cultures with indigenous food, art and languages.

Like many groups dancing in Juneau, the Mt. St. Elias Dancers started practicing months ago. Ramos said he picked two boys who showed the most initiative and skill to dance "The Little Boy From Under the Sea."

Billy Jo Brown and Kalen Kloshkan will dance the part during performances today at the ANB Hall and Saturday at Centennial Hall. A mask was made specifically for the dance that replicates the sea creatures on the boy's face.

The Mt. St. Elias Dancers organized in 1955 with five men who wanted to teach young people in the community about the culture, Ramos said. His daughter, Judy Ramos, and granddaughter, Maka Monture, are also in Juneau for Celebration.

Monture dances but said she prefers drumming. She likes it so much, that two large blisters had formed in the palm of her hand by Thursday afternoon, after the Grand Entrance into Centennial Hall.

Ramos encourages his grandchildren to go to college and get their education. But knowing their family history and culture is as important as education to help them succeed, he said.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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