‘Lift your spirit’: Alaska Native dancers dazzle at first Quyana performance at AFN in 3 years

a group in regalia performs
The Alaska Native Heritage Dancers perform for the first Quyana Night in three years at the 2022 AFN conference, at the Dena’ina Center, in Anchorage, Alaska on October 20, 2022. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Quyana is the Yup’ik word for “thank you,” but it takes on a whole new meaning during the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

During the convention’s Quyana Alaska performances, hundreds of people gather to watch Native dance groups from across the state perform the songs of their communities.

What made this year extra special: It was the first time the dancers have performed since 2019, after back-to-back cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Anticipation was high. People stood in line for hours Thursday morning to get tickets, which sold out quickly. 

They packed a third floor auditorium later that night.

The Alaska Native Heritage Dancers took the stage at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Center first. The group is made up of dancers from across the state — many of them Heritage Center interns, performing for a packed crowd for the first time. As dancers waved fans to the fierce pounding of drums, the crowd gathered to the front row to watch, sometimes joining in on one of the invitational dances.

Tariek Oviok takes the stage with the Tikigaq Dancers. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

On the floor below Thursday evening, Tariek Oviok laced up his mukluk boots in preparation for his group to take the stage. Oviok is from the Inupiaq village of Point Hope, about 150 miles northwest of Kotzebue. He said he’s been coming to Quyana dances as a part of the Tikigaq Dancers since he was a kid.

“‘94 was the first time I think I got to go on the plane with the dance group,” Oviok said. “And then we did a couple other ones during my high school, so that’s three. Then after that, I became the dance group leader in 2001.”

He said he’s performed at Quyana about a dozen times. He estimated that there’s more than 120 dances his village has passed down over generations. 

“All the dances that we do are all from Point Hope,” Oviok said. “We might have a couple that are from the Little Diomede area that have been traded and agreed upon by elders long ago before me. It’s kind of a thing, out of respect they do that.”

The Tikigaq Dancers mourn the recent loss of their dancer during Quyana Night. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Oviok said the dances represent many different stories, including family dances passed down, dances for ending the New Year and celebrating the full moon. He said a hard part of the last two years has been reckoning with the loss of loved ones in the community. One of the dances the Tikigaq Dancers performed was in tribute to a dance group member who passed away recently. It was performed by his wife and siblings.

“We’ve had a lot of lost loved ones in our communities, you know,” Oviok said. “If I could sum it all up, I could tell you right here’s a walking example. This is how much I missed it. I paid my best friend’s fare over there from Nome, Alaska to come here and perform with us.”

The Aciluq dancers yuraq at Quyana Night. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

While some dancers have performed at Quyana for many years, others, like Elizabeth Tugatuk, were performing at AFN for their first time. Tugatuk is from Toksook Bay and has been a part of the Chefornak-based Yup’ik dance group Acilquq for about five years. 

“I’ve never done a big performance,” Tugatuk said. “It’s my first time.” 

A dancer on the ballroom floor during the Acilquq dancers’ performance. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Tugatuk and her fellow dancers were sweating after their performance, lining up at a water cooler and immediately changing out of their heavy performance regalia. While she was nervous ahead of the performance, Tugatuk said it was all worth it. 

“To be up there,” Tugatuk said, “to enjoy our heritage, up there on the stage, and share with everyone, with our ancestors around us, it was amazing.”

Martin Lee Woods performs with the Qikiqtagruk Northern Lights Dancers. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Excitement remained high among all the groups, including the Qikiqtagruk Northern Lights Dancers from Kotzebue. Martin Lee Woods is one of the leaders of the group, having performed at Quyana off and on most years since the first AFN in 1979. He said coming to AFN and seeing friends from across the state adds to the joy of his dance performance. 

“For a Native to attend gatherings and to sing and dance, and tell stories and feast and play games, it’s a way to lift your spirit,” Woods said. “Long dark months up here, above the Arctic Circle.”

The Qikiqtagruk Northern Lights Dancers. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Woods said it’s not just a delight for the performers. After a rough couple years, he said dancing can bring a catharsis to audience members, to help them endure and remain resilient. 

“We grieve, we struggle, but you lift your spirit,” Woods said. “Go home smiling, ready to go back to work and tackle the world. This is what it’s all about.”

Performers graced the Quyana stage until 11 p.m. Thursday night, with another slate of groups, and crowd, preparing to dance all night Friday.

The Mount St. Elias dancers. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)
A young Acilquq dancer. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)
Quyana Night attendees join the Utuqqagmiut dancers. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media).
A dancer holds a Tlingit drum during the Mount St. Elias dancers’ performance. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)
The Tikigaq Dancers. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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