In the autumn of 2000, I moved to Bethel, Alaska after a stint editing China Daily in Beijing. I went to Bethel to serve as editor of a small weekly newspaper serving the 56 villages of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The region is known by anthropologists as the cradle of Eskimo civilization. I quickly gained an appreciation for the Yup’ik Eskimos who’ve called the area home for more than 5,000 years.
With an old Leica camera in hand, I began recording the subsistence practices and traditional dance ceremonies that make up the Yup’ik yearly cycle. The photos in this post come from dances held in communities on the lower Yukon River and along the Bering Sea coast during the months of February and March in 2003 and 2004. I called the resulting exhibition of these photographs at a museum in Bethel and an art gallery in Anchorage, “Yurarnariuq,” which is Yup’ik for “it’s time to dance.” Dances between two villages are known by a number of names in Yup’ik, but are commonly referred to as “potlatches” in English.
Most striking about the winter dances in the villages was the pure joy with which they were held. Life in Alaska’s rural villages can be harsh, but all of one’s burdens seemed to be automatically left at the entryway of the community hall when the drums started.
Life has changed dramatically in Alaska’s Native villages in the last 100 years, but one gets the sense that this ritual of gathering with friends and neighbors to celebrate the simple joy of survival and to give thanks remains the same today as it was a century ago.
The photographs in “Yurarnariuq” owe a debt to the work of Fairbanks photographer James Barker, who has photographed the Yup’ik Eskimos for the past 40 years. A debt is also owed to anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan and to the residents of Alakanuk, Toksook Bay and Kotlik.