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At Wales’ Kingikmiut Festival, Dancing to Heal

An Alaska Native dance ensemble performs inside a school gymnasium.

At the tip of the Seward Peninsula, nestled between the rising mass of Cape Prince of Wales and the crashing waves of the Bering Strait, lies the community of Wales. And earlier this month, it hosted one of the largest Alaska Native dance festivals in the state.

The Wales Kingikmiut Dance Festival is now in its 18th year. It’s a high-energy, late-night celebration of family, community and cultural heritage. 10 groups from around the region and as far as Anchorage flew in to the village over Labor Day weekend, to sing, dance, drum, and talk.

They also came to heal. The Native dance tradition has been revived in Wales and other communities over the past 20 years, after decades of cultural suppression by colonial forces. Today, as one elder put it, “coming here makes us feel whole.”

And for a group like the King Island Dancers, the festival means a chance to reconnect with their home. King Island, which can be seen from Wales on a clear day, hasn’t been inhabited since the 1960s. Members of the group now live throughout Alaska, but they reunite with each other and with the songs of their ancestors here.

Many at the festival expressed a deep sense of both needing to live up to those ancestors and wanting to ensure the tradition is preserved. They raised concerns about whether there are young people committed to learning and practicing. But the festival is showcasing the strength of this powerful form of expression, and its enduring ability to lift the spirit.

Listen above to hear more: the sounds and voices of the Wales Kingikmiut Dance Festival.

Image at top: the 2017 Kingikmiut Dance Festival in Wales. Photo: Gabe Colombo, KNOM.

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