Ernest William Hawkes.

The dance festivals of the Alaskan Eskimo online

. (page 1 of 3)
Online LibraryErnest William HawkesThe dance festivals of the Alaskan Eskimo → online text (page 1 of 3)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Anne Storer and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team at (This file was
produced from images generously made available by The
Internet Archive/American Libraries.)

Transcriber's Notes:
1) There are a number of words in the native language that appear to mean
the same thing, but have different accents. It is unknown if this is
intentional or a printing error - these have been left as printed. eg:
Nuleága / núleaga ... Takináka / takínaka / Takinaka ... Wáhok / wahok
2) Characters with diacritical marks are noted as follows:
Acute ['x] macron [=x] combined ['=x]
Macron (below) [x=]
Dot above [.x]
Breve [)x]

* * * * *

VOL. VI No. 2







This account of the Dance Festivals of the Alaskan Eskimo was written
from material gathered in the Bering Strait District during three
years' residence: two on the Diomede Islands, and one at St. Michael
at the mouth of the Yukon River. This paper is based on my
observations of the ceremonial dances of the Eskimo of these two


[=a], [=e], [=i], [=o], [=u], long vowels.

a, e, i, o, u, short vowels.

ä, as in hat.

â, as in law.

ai, as in aisle.

au, as ow in how.

h, w, y, semivowels.

c, as sh in should.

f, a bilabial surd.

g, as in get.

['g], a post-palatal sonant.

k, as in pick.

l, as in lull.

m, as in mum.

n, as in nun.

ng, as ng in sing.

p, as in pipe.

q, a post-palatal surd.

[.r], a uvular sonant spirant.

s, as in sauce.

t, an alveolar stop.

tc, as ch in chapter.

v, a bilabial sonant.

z, as in zone.

* * * * *



The ceremonial dance of the Alaskan Eskimo is a rhythmic
pantomime - the story in gesture and song of the lives of the various
Arctic animals on which they subsist and from whom they believe their
ancient clans are sprung. The dances vary in complexity from the
ordinary social dance, in which all share promiscuously and in which
individual action is subordinated to rhythm, to the pantomime totem
dances performed by especially trained actors who hold their positions
from year to year according to artistic merit.[1] Yet even in the
totem dances the pantomime is subordinate to the rhythm, or rather
superimposed upon it, so that never a gesture or step of the
characteristic native time is lost.

This is a primitive 2-4 beat based on the double roll of the chorus of
drums. Time is kept, in the men's dances, by stamping the foot and
jerking the arm in unison, twice on the right, then twice on the left
side, and so on, alternately. Vigorous dancers vary the program by
leaping and jumping at intervals, and the shamans are noted for the
dizzy circles which they run round the púgyarok, the entrance hole of
the dance hall. The women's dance has the same measure and can be
performed separately or in conjunction with the men's dance, but has a
different and distinctly feminine movement. The feet are kept on the
ground, while the body sways back and forth in graceful undulations to
the music and the hands with outspread palms part the air with the
graceful stroke of a flying gull. Some of their dances are performed
seated. Then they strip to the waist and form one long line of waving
arms and swaying shoulders, all moving in perfect unison.

[1] This characterization applies to the Alaskan Eskimo only; so far
as is now known the other Eskimo branches do not have totemic dances.


The chorus which furnishes the music, is composed of from six to ten
men. They sit on the in['g]lak, a raised shelf extending around the
dance hall about five feet from the floor, and sing their dance songs
keeping time on their drums. They usually sit in the rear of the room,
which is the post of honor. Among the island tribes of Bering Strait
this position is reversed and they occupy the front of the room. Some
old man, the keeper of tribal tradition and song, acts as the leader,
calling out the words of the dance songs a line ahead. He begins the
proceedings by striking up a low chant, an invitation to the people
assembled to dance. The chorus accompany him lightly on their drums.
Then at the proper place, he strikes a crashing double beat; the drums
boom out in answer; the song arises high and shrill; the dancers leap
into their places, and the dance begins.

The first dances are usually simple exercises calculated to warm the
blood and stretch stiffened muscles. They begin with leaping around
the pú['g]yarok, jumping into the air with both feet in the Eskimo
high kick, settling down into the conventional movements of the men's

[2] While the northern and southern tribes have the same general
movements for their ordinary dances, they give a very different
presentation of the festival dance-songs. The northerners leap and
stamp about the kásgi until overcome with exhaustion; while in the
south the performers sit or kneel on the floor, adorned with an
abundance of streaming furs and feathers, sweep their hands through
the air in graceful unison. It is a difference between rude vigor
and dramatic art.

Quite often a woman steps into the center of the circle, and goes
through her own dance, while the men leap and dance around her. This
act has been specialized in the Reindeer and Wolf Pack Dance of the
Aithúkaguk, the Inviting-In Festival, where the woman wearing a
reindeer crest and belt is surrounded by the men dancers, girt in
armlets and fillets of wolf skin. They imitate the pack pulling down a
deer, and the din caused by their jumping and howling around her
shrinking form is terrific.


There appears to be no restriction against the women taking part in
the men's dances. They also act as assistants to the chief actors in
the Totem Dances, three particularly expert and richly dressed women
dancers ranging themselves behind the mask dancer as a pleasing
background of streaming furs and glistening feathers. The only time
they are forbidden to enter the kásgi is when the shaman is performing
certain secret rites. They also have secret meetings of their own when
all men are banished.[3] I happened to stumble on to one of these one
time when they were performing certain rites over a pregnant woman,
but being a white man, and therefore unaccountable, I was greeted with
a good-natured laugh and sent about my business.

[3] This custom appears to be widespread. Low writes of the Hudson Bay
Eskimo: "During the absence of the men on hunting expeditions, the
women sometimes amuse themselves by a sort of female "angekoking."
This amusement is accompanied by a number of very obscene rites...."
Low, The Cruise of the Neptune, p. 177.

On the other hand, men are never allowed to take part in the strictly
women's dances, although nothing pleases an Eskimo crowd more than an
exaggerated imitation by one of their clowns of the movements of the
women's dance. The women's dances are practiced during the early
winter and given at the Aiyáguk, or Asking Festival, when the men are
invited to attend as spectators. They result in offers of temporary
marriage to the unmarried women, which is obviously the reason for
this rite. Such dances, confined to the women, have not been observed
in Alaska outside the islands of Bering Sea, and I have reason to
believe are peculiar to this district, which, on account of its
isolation, retains the old forms which have died out or been modified
on the mainland. But throughout Alaska the women are allowed the
utmost freedom in participating in the festivals, either as naskuks[4]
or feast givers, as participants or as spectators.

[4] Literally "Heads" or directors of the feasts.

In fact, the social position of the Eskimo woman has been
misrepresented and misunderstood. At first sight she appears to be the
slave of her husband, but a better acquaintance will reveal the fact
that she is the manager of the household and the children, the
business partner in all his trades, and often the "oomíalik," or
captain of the concern as well. Her husband is forbidden by tribal
custom to maltreat her, and if she owns the house, she can order him
out at any time. I have never known a woman being head of a tribe, but
sometimes a woman is the most influential member of a tribe.


With few exceptions, all dances take place in the village kásgi or
dance hall. This is the public meeting place where the old men gather
to sit and smoke while they discuss the village welfare, where the
married men bring their work and take their sweat baths, and where
the bachelors and young men, termed kásgimiut, have their sleeping
quarters. The kásgi is built and maintained at public expense, each
villager considering it an honor to contribute something. Any tools or
furnishings brought into the kásgi are considered public property, and
used as such.

When a kásgi is to be built, announcement is made through messengers
to neighboring villages, and all gather to assist in the building and
to help celebrate the event. First a trench several feet deep is dug
in which to plant the timbers forming the sides. These are usually of
driftwood, which is brought by the ocean currents from the Yukon. The
ice breaks up first at the head of that great stream, and the débris
dams up the river, which overflows its banks, tearing down trees,
buildings and whatever borders its course as it breaks its way out to
the sea. The wreckage is scattered along the coast for over a hundred
miles, and the islands of Bering Sea get a small share. The islanders
are constantly on the lookout for the drifting timber, and put out to
sea in the stormiest weather for a distant piece, be it large or
small. They also patrol the coast after a high tide for stray bits of
wood. When one considers the toil and pain with which material is
gathered, the building of a kásgi becomes an important matter.

After the timbers have been rough hewn with the adze (úlimon) they are
set upright in the trench to a height of seven to eight feet and
firmly bedded with rock. This is to prevent the fierce Polar winds
which prevail in midwinter from tearing the houses to pieces. In the
older buildings a protecting stone wall was built on the sides. Most
of the houses are set in a side hill, or partly underground, for
additional security, as well as for warmth. The roof is laid on top of
the uprights, the logs being drawn in gradually in pyramid shape to a
flat top. In the middle of the top is the [.r]álok or smoke hole, an
opening about two feet square. In a kásgi thirty feet square the rálok
is twenty feet above the floor. It is covered with a translucent
curtain of walrus gut. The dead are always taken out through this
opening, and never by the entrance. The most important feature of the
room is the in['g]lak, a wide shelf supported by posts at intervals.
It stands about five feet high extending around the room. This serves
the double purpose of a seat and bed for the inmates of the kásgi. The
rear, the káan, is the most desirable position, being the warmest, and
is given to headmen and honored guests.[5] The side portions, káaklim,
are given to the lesser lights and the women and children; and the
front, the óaklim, being nearest the entrance and therefore cold and
uncomfortable is left for the orphans and worthless men.

[5] The order of the seating on the in['g]lak of invited guests is a
matter of great concern to the Eskimo, as it is an indication of

Children purchase their right to a seat in the kásgi by making
presents, through their parents, to all the inmates, kásgimiut.

Until they do so they have no right to enter. For the same reason
strangers on entering the kásgi offer a small present to the headman,
who divides it among the people.

The floor of the kásgi is made of rough planking, and the boards in
the center are left loose so that they may be easily removed. These
cover the k[=e]néthluk or fireplace, an excavation four feet square,
and four feet deep, used in the sweat baths. It is thought to be
the place where the spirits sit, when they visit the kásgi, during
festivals held in their honor. Offerings are poured to them through
the cracks in the planks. In the center of the floor is a round hole
about two feet in diameter, called the entrance hole or púgyarok. This
connects with a long tunnel, the a['g]veak, which leads outside. The
tunnel is usually so low that it is necessary to enter in a stooping
position, which the Eskimo does by placing both hands on the sides of
the púgyarok, and drawing himself through. Some dance-houses have
another entrance directly into the room on a level with the ground,
the underground passage being used only in winter. The diagram (Plate
XI) gives an idea of this arrangement.


The drum (saúyit)[6] is the only instrument employed in the dances. It
is made of a circular hoop about eighteen inches in width over which
is stretched a resonant covering made from the bladder of the walrus
or seal. It is held in place by a cord of rawhide (o['k]linok)[7]
which fits into a groove on the outer rim. The cover can therefore be
tightened at will. It is customary during the intermissions between
the dances for the drummers to rub a handful of snow over the skins to
prevent them from cracking under the heavy blows. The drum is held
aloft and struck with a thin stick (múmwa).[8] It gives a deep boom in
answer. The shaman uses a smaller baton with which he beats a
continuous tattoo as an accompaniment to his songs. The northerners
strike the back of the rim with their sticks, while the Yukon people
belabor the face of the drum.

[6] Tcáuyak, Yukon dialect.

[7] Lóftak, Yukon dialect.

[8] Múmra, Yukon dialect.

The leader of the chorus frequently flourishes a baton, made from a
fox tail or the skin of the ermine which is mounted on a stick. With
this he marks the time of the dance. In Plate XIV, the white blur is
the ermine at the end of his stick. It is very difficult to obtain a
good picture in the ill lighted kásgi, and not often that the natives
will allow one taken there.

One indispensable part of a male dancer's outfit is his gloves. I have
never seen a man dancing without them. These are usually of wolverine,
or of reindeer with elaborate trimmings, but on ordinary occasions any
kind will do. The women do not share this peculiarity. In place of
gloves they wear handlets of grass decorated with feathers of duck or
of ptarmigan. The men in the Totem Dances also wear handlets which are
carved and painted to represent the particular totem they seek to
honor. These too are fantastically decorated with feathers, usually of
the loon. The central feather is stripped, and crowned with a tuft of
white down. Both men and women wear armlets and fillets of skin or
feathers according to the animal character they represent. When in the
full swing of the dance with fur and feathers streaming they present a
pleasing spectacle, a picture full of the same wild grace and poetic
motion which characterizes the animal forbears from which they claim

The chief characters in the Totem and Comic Dances wear masks and
carry staves decorated with feathers. Occasionally the women
assistants carry feathered wands (Kelízruk).

Of the masks there is a great variety ranging from the plain wooden
masks to those of such great size that they are suspended from the
ceiling of the kásgi by a cord while the dancer performs behind them.

The Cape Prince of Wales (Kinígumiut) Eskimo construct complete
figures of their totems. These are worked by means of concealed
strings by the performers, a climax of art which is supposed to be
particularly pleasing to the spirits addressed. Then the shaman
(Túngalik)[9] has his own set of masks, hideous enough to strike
terror to even the initiated. Each one of these represents a familiar
spirit (túnghat)[10] which assists him in his operations.

[9] Tungrálik, Yukon dialect.

[10] Tungrániyak, Yukon dialect.

Ordinary dance masks may be made by anyone, but the masks for the
ceremonial dances are made by some renowned shaman, engaged for the
occasion. These masks are burned at the close of the festival, but may
be sold by the actors if they supply an equal amount of wood for the
sacrificial fire.

Many of the masks are very complicated, having appendages of wood, fur
and feathers. They are all fashioned with an idea of representing some
feature in the mythology of the spirit (Inua) or animal shade
(Tunghat) which they represent. In the latter case they are nearly
always made double, the mythical beings who inhabited the early world
being regarded as able to change from animal to human shape, by merely
pushing up or pulling down the upper part of the face as a mask. Such
masks are often hinged to complete the illusion, the actor changing
the face at will.

It might be mentioned here that when the actor puts on the mask he is
supposed to become imbued with the spirit of the being represented.
This accounts, to the native mind, for the very lifelike imitation
which he gives.

The masks are painted along conventional lines; the favorite colors
for the inua masks are red (Karékteoak),[11] black (Auktoak), green
(Cúngokyoak), white (Katéktoak), and blue (Taúkrektoak), in the order
named. These colors[12] may hold a sacred or symbolic significance.
The inua masks are decorated with some regard to the natural colors of
the human face, but in the masks of the túnghat the imagination of the
artist runs riot. The same is true of the comic masks, which are
rendered as grotesque and horrible as possible. A mask with distorted
features, a pale green complexion, surrounded by a bristling mass of
hair, amuses them greatly. The Eskimo also caricature their neighbors,
the Dènè, in this same manner, representing them by masks with very
large noses and sullen features.

[11] These are the northern names. In the southern or Yukon dialect
black is Túnguli; white Katughúli; red, Kauigúli; green, Tcunungúli.

The endings and pronunciation of similar Eskimo words are somewhat
different in Arctic Alaska and on the Yukon River; sufficiently so as
to produce two distinct dialects. For this reason I have given the
forms from both sections.

[12] Red is obtained from red ochre; white from white clay; black from
soot or ashes; green from oxide of copper.


The Dance Festivals of the Alaskan Eskimo are held during that cold,
stormy period of the winter when the work of the year is over and
hunting is temporarily at an end. At this season the people gather in
the kásgi to celebrate the local rites, and at certain intervals
invite neighboring tribes to join in the great inter-tribal festivals.
This season of mirth and song is termed "Tcauyávik" the drum dance
season, from "Tcaúyak" meaning drum. It lasts from November to March,
and is a continuous succession of feasts and dances, which makes glad
the heart of the Eskimo and serves to lighten the natural depression
caused by day after day of interminable wind and darkness. A brisk
exchange of presents at the local festivals promotes good feeling, and
an interchange of commodities between the tribes at the great feasts
stimulates trade and results in each being supplied with the
necessities of life. For instance, northern tribes visiting the south
bring presents of reindeer skins or múkluk to eke out the scanty
supply of the south, while the latter in return give their visitors
loads of dried salmon which the northerners feed to their dogs.

The festivals also serve to keep alive the religious feeling of the
people, as evidenced in the Dance to the Dead, which allows free play
to the nobler sentiments of filial faith and paternal love. The
recital of the deeds of ancient heroes preserves the best traditions
of the race and inspires the younger generation. To my mind, there is
nothing which civilization can supply which can take the place of the
healthy exercise, social enjoyment, commercial advantages, and
spiritual uplift of these dances. Where missionary sentiment is
overwhelming they are gradually being abandoned; where there is a
mistaken opinion in regard to their use, they have been given up
altogether; but the tenacity with which the Eskimo clings to these
ancient observances, even in places where they have been nominal
christians for years, is an evidence of the vitality of these ancient
rites and their adaptation to the native mind.

The festivals vary considerably according to locality, but their
essential features are the same. Taken in order of celebration they
are as follows

Local Festivals.

1. The Aiyáguk or Asking Festival.
2. The Tcaúiyuk or Bladder Feast.
3. The Ail['=i]gi or Annual Feast to the Dead.

Inter-tribal Festivals.

4. The Aíthuk['=a]tukhtuk or Great Feast to the Dead.
5. The Aithúkaguk or Inviting-In Feast.

The Asking Festival, which begins the round of feasting and dancing,
takes place during the November moon. It is a local ceremony in which
gifts are exchanged between the men and women of the village, which
result in offers of temporary marriage. It takes its name from the
Aiyáguk or Asking Stick,[13] which is the wand of office of the
messenger or go-between. The Annual Feast to the Dead is held during
the December moon, and may be repeated again in spring after the
Bladder Feast, if a large number of Eskimos have died in the interim.
It consists of songs and dances accompanied by offerings of food and
drink to the dead. It is a temporary arrangement for keeping the dead
supplied with sustenance (they are thought to imbibe the spiritual
essence of the offerings) until the great Feast to the Dead takes

[13] The Asking Stick is also used in the Inviting-In Feast

This is held whenever the relatives of the deceased have accumulated
sufficient food, skins and other goods to entertain the countryside
and are able to properly honor the deceased. At the same time the
namesakes of the dead are richly clothed from head to foot and
showered with presents. As this prodigal generosity entails the
savings of years on the part of the feast givers (náskut), the feast
occurs only at irregular intervals of several years. It has been
termed the Ten Year Feast by the traders (Kágruska), but so far as I
have been able to inquire, it has no fixed date among the Eskimo. It
is by far the most important event in the life of the Alaskan native.
By it he discharges all debts of honor to the dead, past, present and
future. He is not obliged to take part in another festival of the kind
unless another near relative dies. He pays off all old scores of
hospitality and lays his friends under future obligations by his
presents. He is often beggared by this prodigality, but he can be sure
of welcome and entertainment wherever he goes, for he is a man who has
discharged all his debts to society and is therefore deserving of
honor for the rest of his days.

In the Bladder Feast which takes place in January, the bladders of the
animals slain during the past season, in which the spirits of the
animals are supposed to reside, are returned to the sea, after
appropriate ceremonies in the kásgi. There they are thought to attract

1 3

Online LibraryErnest William HawkesThe dance festivals of the Alaskan Eskimo → online text (page 1 of 3)