The First Eskimo Dance
By: Brad Cole

My vacant eyes followed the rolls of steam crawling through the air above me as I sprawled out on the wooden pallet of a floor, physically exhausted from having endured the burning heat of the sauna. The fiery steam struck like angry dogs lashing out against my reddening skin. But now lying down in the washroom I could rest and let my mind drift off like the floating curls of steam and perhaps, in the process find a more centered and deliberate way of becoming buried within myself. That was why I came to the sauna, to wash away the old self that clung like a worn out shirt to my life and hopefully reclaim one more polished and true. Especially on this Friday, for Potlatch would be in the evening and I was to do my first Eskimo dance.

Lying on the cold, wet floor still too weak to stand, my mind raced back to the dance rehearsals. I remembered the small one-room building surrounded by snow machines and snowball throwing children. Sitting under the starry sky the building quickly filled with fur clad Elders and their relatives. Outside you could hear the drums beating, like the sound of an awakening heart. Inside people sat shoulder to shoulder while others began dancing as one, much as their long past kin did when they were alive. As an outsider, a first year teacher at the school in Emmonak, I felt welcomed at the dance rehearsals. One could feel it becoming a place for the attending families to find closeness to their ancestral spirits.

It was a cold and windy night that arrived that evening, along with a large number of people from outside of the village. I saw many of them unloading piles of gifts from the worn sleds attached to their snow-machines and then they stumped through the dense snow and gathered indoors to celebrate the Potlatch. There were more frosty faces in the parka buried crowd than blackfish mingling charmingly beneath a frozen slough.

Hearing the beginning beat of the drums and the soft chanting, the dancers rose up from the floor and moved in front of the audience and clustered as closely together as possible, like caribou preparing to cross a windy river. Holding on to numerous snow owl feathered and caribou whiskered fans the dancers began circling their arms in shared, time-honored movements.

The drums spoke out in such a loud and rhythmic call to the surrounding universe I feared the tundra spirits may become excited, perhaps even too much so, and come crashing through the wooden roof of the old Complex at any moment.

Soon I was introduced to the solemn looking audience and my Eskimo name was announced, “Atrilnguq”, meaning “no name”. Grabbing a dance fan made for the occasion, I together with others began the dance that I had rehearsed so many times. I could feel my spirit stretching inside of me, struggling to see and understand the occasion in a Yupik way.

It was late when I left the Complex and the celebration was still going on. The sound of the drums and images of sealskin clothed children dancing together continued in my mind as I walked out onto a cold and windy tundra. I was hoping the fresh air and exercise would give me a break from the excitement of the dance and help me fall to asleep. Following a snow machine trail through the willows and over a couple of sloughs I finally hiked out on to the bank of a small lake. On the opposite shore an orange full moon was rising up from the flat snowy horizon. A storm was blowing in toward the village from the east. While standing there I thought again about the dance and the snow owl feathers on my dance fan. An idea was stirring up slowly inside of me, trying to take shape. The wind barreled down from the night sky and for a moment my cheeks felt like they were on fire. On rare occasions I could feel the ghost of my grandmother in the wind and I wondered how close she was to me during the dance. But I did not feel any spirit on that night, the night of my new name, “no name”. Only the glow of a full moon was staring down at me from the cold sky. I stood there in the snow waiting for it to fall into my spiritually haunted and somewhat vacant, but now strangely feathered soul.