Kingikmiut Dance Festival comes back after 4-year hiatus
The 22nd Annual Kingikmiut Dance Festival took place in Wales over Labor Day Weekend for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The celebration kicked off in the school gym Friday night, and the drumming and dancing of Sunday night’s grand finale was still going the next morning when the first Bering Air charter left to take participants home.
When it started in the late 1990s, the Kingikmiut Dance Festival, or KDF, awakened a tradition that had been “asleep” for more than 50 years, said longtime Wales resident Tony Keyes. As he watched the dancers from the bleachers, Keyes said the celebration went to sleep again during the pandemic, but now the community was finally able to reawaken it.
The Native Village of Wales organized the event, securing funding through sources like NSEDC’s Community Benefits Share. Five dance groups attended: the local Wales Kingikmiut group, the Anchorage-based Kingikmiut group, the King Island dancers, as well as groups from Gambell and White Mountain.
Robert Tokeinna, Jr., of the Wales Kingikmiut group, said that bringing back the festival after the recent hiatus sometimes felt like “greasing a rusty wheel.” But, Tokeinna added, “all the dance groups seemed to enjoy themselves and work together—there were no scuffles or setbacks.”
In past years, there were up to nine dance groups at KDF, including those from Diomede, Shishmaref, Kotzebue, Point Hope and Wainwright. Dancers and drummers from Stebbins were scheduled to join this year but their charter was canceled due to bad weather. The gym may have been less packed than usual, but the event was also streamed live on Facebook for anyone to enjoy virtually. At one point, everyone turned to the camera to wave at Toby Anungazuk, Jr., who helped found the festival and now lives in Golovin.
The joyful mood occasionally turned somber as attendees looked around and noticed who else was missing from the celebration; they felt the absence of Elders and other relatives and friends who have died since in 2019.
Dealing with loss
“This year, it’s been really difficult, just because of the fact that all of us have lost so many people in each community,” said Lucy Kitchen, who is originally from Wales and now lives in Nome.
Kitchen recently lost her mother, Maggie Komonaseak. “She was my connection to my language,” said Kitchen, who speaks the Kingikmiut dialect of Inupiaq. “I could ask her anything, any day. Now I don’t have that.”
Though her first few days in Wales ahead of the festival were tough, she said she managed to pull her mood up.
“Our children have to see us happy,” Kitchen said. “For the children, I want them to continue on, because it’s a joyous three days. Even though we’ve lost so many people since our last dance festival, we’re happy to be together. We’re happy to share new songs.”
The communities have also lost young people since the last festival took place, and 2023 has been an especially hard year for Wales. In January, 24-year-old Summer Myomick and her 1-year-old son Clyde Ongtowasruk were killed in a horrific polar bear attack just outside the school. Clyde’s great-uncle Joshua Ongtowasruk recalled that many kids in the village were afraid to return to school after the tragedy. He teared up when he spoke about how great it was to see them dancing, playing and having fun in the building again. Reflecting on other highlights of the festival, Ongtowasruk commended the King Island dancer group for getting the energy high in the room on Saturday night.
Renaissance of dancing
“They really lifted me up,” Ongtowasruk said. “The Elders of their group are rare to find, and we’re lucky to have them.”
The King Island dancers helped inspire the formation of younger dance groups. The Kingikmiut dancers of Anchorage got their start in the early 1990s. One of its founders, Gregory (Tungwenuk) Nothstine, grew up in Nome and Anchorage but his mother was from Wales. Nothstine recalled that the late Paul Tiulana of the King Island dancers encouraged him to go to Wales to see if Elders remembered songs. Nothstine borrowed an 8mm camera and visited Wales in 1990 to record the Welcome Dance and the Raven Dance, and the Kingikmiut dancers started practicing soon after.
“The exciting time was when we were learning,” Nothstine said. “We struggled through making lots of mistakes and feeling embarrassed. Because being Inupiaq and colonized, you feel lots of shame for not knowing. But we worked through that, pushed through it.”
New groups are still bringing back the tradition in the Bering Strait region. White Mountain brought back a dance group just in the last 10 years, and this was their first time at KDF.
“White Mountain totally lost dance,” Kitchen said. “’I’m so totally impressed that they’re trying so hard. I’m just so proud that they have stepped forward. They reminded me of when we first started again—we were very quiet like them.”
As the revitalized dance groups get louder in their performances and pick up more experience, more kids in the region’s communities are growing up with dance from an early age. That was clear to Nothstine at KDF.
“When we first started, hardly any of the community kids did the invitationals except for maybe some of the dancers,” Nothstine said. “But now you see the kids converge on the floor and you have a full arena of kids doing the invitationals.”
Tokeinna was proud of his daughter Iris for helping to get kids off the bleachers during those invitationals.
Dance and language
“I’m fortunate to have her as a dance group member,” he said. “She goes out and grabs those youth that might want to dance and makes them feel comfortable to express themselves.”
Iris isn’t his only child involved in the group. Tokeinna voice was hoarse on Sunday after trying to keep up with the loud singing of his son, Dezmond.
“In order for it to flourish we need our youth to be involved,” Tokeinna said. “We have to have stewardship of our traditions and cultures.”
While Wales’ dance traditions are healthier than they were 30 years ago, many participants at the festival expressed anxiety about another crucial piece of Kingikmiut culture that’s at risk: the language.
Richard and Jane Atuk of the Anchorage-based Kingikmiut group have been working to better document the Kingikmiut dialect and try to get people speaking with weekly Zoom classes.
On Saturday and Sunday before the performances of KDF got underway, Richard led discussions for anyone who wanted to learn about the Kingikmiut dialect. By Atuk’s estimation, the Wales dialect is 40 percent different from the more commonly taught North Slope dialect. To demonstrate that gap between dialects, Atuk handed out a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address with 40 percent of the words missing and asked if anyone knew what the text was or could understand it.
During the discussions, older generations recalled the trauma of being punished for speaking the only language they knew—and how speaking that language again can dredge up difficult feelings of shame. Younger generations spoke of their frustrations with getting tongue-tied when they tried to speak. But the goal for pushing through those challenges was clear.
“The reason we want to use Kingikmiut dialect is so we can talk to our Elders right now,” Atuk told the class on Saturday. “When we use their dialect, then they respond.”
UPDATE: This story was updated on Sept. 8 to reflect a correction in the spelling of Robert Tokeinna's last name. In a previous version of the story it was misspelled as Tokienna. The correct spelling is Tokeianna.