By Darrel Olsen
The Chugach people value seasonal celebrations still practiced today. These celebrations carry traditional and Russian influenced activities throughout the Region.
1. What types of festivities? i.e. religion, masking, first catch, dancing, dinners
2. Dates of festivities/celebrations.
3. What does the celebration represent?
"Celebrations are an important way to pass on our cultural history and values. It's important for us to come together to show respect. Honor our ancestors and animals through our stories, songs, dance while sharing our harvest. It gives us an opportunity to take a peek through the window of our past and walk forward with the remnants given to us to celebrate our future." -Nancy Yeaton, Nanwalek
Celebrations have traditionally played an important part in our lives and continue on today. The celebrations were not only a way to share values and beliefs that Sugpiat culture holds dear but also as a way to break up the long winters. The celebrations were a way to express not only the moral values of respectful hunting, community sharing, and commemoration but their spiritual connection to the land, to their communities, and to their Elders.
The traditional Sugpiaq belief system centered on a cosmos whose every aspect possessed a consciousness and the layers of reality separating human from animal life were fluid. Traditionally, it was believed that all living things possessed a spirit (suk). The celebrations honored these connections to the animals which sustained them and petitioned for more successful hunts in the future. The traditional winter Bladder Festival honored the souls of all the animals killed during the year. The animals’ souls were said to reside in their bladders which the hunters had kept of all animals killed through the year. The hunters would then dry, and paint the bladders to prepare for the festival. When it was time, they would, hang the animal bladders from the ceiling as they danced and sang stories of their hunts as a way to show respect and appeal to the animal spirit world for a fruitful hunting season ahead.
Throughout the year the Sugpiaq held ceremonies and feasts and traveled to other villages’ celebrations as well. There the hosts often presented guests with impressive gifts and food, reminiscent of the potlatches of Southeastern tribes. These gatherings often included stories, games, races, and dances both spiritual and narrative performed to the beat of the drums. Masks often represented the spirits or spirit worlds (suk).
In Prince William Sound the Feast of the Dead was held every August to memorialize lives lost in the previous year – in addition to any individual funeral rites. Hosting duties for this large scale ceremony rotated among the villages of the sound. The Feast began with a week or more of singing and dancing, including masked performers who presented comedic dances. The hosts would prepare for months as they would present guests with food, furs and gifts with the request that they remember the departed. Other gifts were burned as offerings to the sky world where the ancestors lived. Frequently the masks used were burned or stowed away in caves after the ceremony.i
The arrival of the Russian fur trade in the late 18th century with its attendant epidemics and exploitation severely curtailed Sugpiat ceremonial life. Yet indigenous ceremonies and shamanism persisted alongside of the gradual conversion of the Sugpiat to Russian Orthodoxy. “Celebrations still held in many villages around the time of Russian Christmas combine aspects of traditional masking, feasting, and dance with Christian symbols and Russian folk traditions.”ii
Sugpiaq celebrations and gatherings are still with us today. The Russian Orthodox holidays of Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter are still marked with elaborate starring rituals, maaskalataq, dances, and specialty foods. Honoring those who have passed on has certain traditions and celebrations. A child’s first successful hunt or fish is still given away to be shared with the community. We hope you enjoy this kit where you can explore both the form and function of Sugpiaq celebrations with stories, songs and dances of the past, present and future.
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Native Village of Eyak Sobriety Celebration
Tamamta Katurlluta: The Gathering
Nanwalek Seal Dancers
Andrew Abyo – From Kayaks to Masks
Sugpiaq Mask Dance
Alaska Native Drum Making Video
Russian Orthodox Starring in Port Graham
Russian Christmas in Valdez
Following the Star in Port Graham
Nanwalek Alaska, Maskalataq
Sinew Back Bow - Revival of Traditional Alutiiq Songs from Tatitlek
Echoing Beads - Revival of Traditional Alutiiq Songs from Chenega
Gguangkuta Sugt’stun Atutepet Nanwalegmi - Our Sugt’stun Songs in Nanwalek
• Climate Change
• Food From the Sea
• Honoring Eyak
• Our Water
• Traditional Food & Recipes
• Traditional Housing & Shelters
• Traditional Place Names
• Traditional Transportation
• Traditional Weather Forecasting
• Additional Heritage Kits
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