Memories from the delta
Aklavik Delta Drummers and Dancers keep Inuvialuit culture strong
by Kerry McCluskey
NNSL (Apr 06/98) - Alex Gordon isn't risking anything when it comes to keeping the drum dance going.
The Inuvialuit elder revived the traditions he learned from his own elders so many years ago and passed them on to the younger people in Aklavik.
Gordon says the drum beat has been a constant in his life since his birth in 1910.
"I used to have drumming around me ever since I was born. There was nothing else, no TV, no gramophone. The only way to have fun was the drum dance and a few games like the arm pull," says Gordon, now 88 years old.
Originally from Alaska, Gordon says he learned the art while watching others dance and sing long before arriving in Aklavik in 1944.
"We learned it ourselves. We would just sit around and watch at the drum dance and then try it ourselves sometime. When the winter was nice and it was bright outside, we would start dancing and singing and watch ourselves in the shadow of the moonlight," says Gordon. "That's how we learned to dance."
He says the Inuvialuit songs and dances are no longer in great danger of being lost.
"It was just dying off. If we don't teach them, there would be no more drummers and dancers. We didn't want drum dancing to die off so the young fellas learned it. We started to travel around and they wanted me to take the young fellas to China but we had no young fellas then so we never made it."
Since bringing the dances back from near extinction, Gordon has travelled to San Francisco, Greenland, Ottawa and Edmonton with the Aklavik Delta Drummers and Dancers. Their most recent trip was into Yellowknife during the Arctic Winter Games where they performed as part of the Northwest Territories cultural contingent.
Gordon's granddaughter Georgiann came to Yellowknife as part of the group. During the Arctic Winter Gala at NACC, she introduced her grandfather to the audience and said, "he has always passed on the traditions and knowledge through the drumming and dancing and our drums are no longer silent."
Georgiann first started dancing with Gordon in the late 1970s.
"My grandmother and grandfather used to teach me when we were in the house alone. They would show me the moves and dancing and I show my little cousins."
Adorned in the traditional dress of the Inuvialuit, Georgiann says that even their costumes are now threatened.
"My grandmother made them three years ago and she can't sew any more. These are the last costumes."
Georgiann says that since her grandmother's health has started to fail and she has had to stop travelling, her grandfather is the only elder left who can drum dance.
"He's the only one and the elders felt if nobody learned the dances and the songs from a long time ago, they would be gone. People were asking him to teach for a long time -- before the elders passed away, they were asking someone to teach the younger people how," says Georgiann who adds that the songs they sing are about the elders travelling and hunting and the animals they used to survive.
Georgiann says the group of anywhere from nine to 30 participants has recently started to instruct the students at the Moose Kerr school in Aklavik.
"They like it, it's good and they dance and some are shy. They're happy to know their culture and it keeps them busy and out of trouble."
The principal of the school agrees with Georgiann.
"Every year it's one of the highlights for the kids. They ask every year 'when's the drum dancing? When's the drum dancing?' Every year they participate and do it extremely well," says Frank McCallum.
"It does an awful lot of things but perhaps the most important is that it makes a connection between themselves and the elders which otherwise wouldn't be there. They don't have regular contact with the elders in school," says McCallum.
He adds that the Aklavik Delta Drummers and Dancers have helped to foster a strong sense of self-esteem and pride in the Inuvialuit students.
"It gives them skills they know they can be good at and you know they're feeling good about themselves because they can do it better than anyone else and few achieve that big of a success in school."