Fairbanks in February
Fairbanks in February
This February, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel up to Alaska to film the latest episode of Growing Native. This trip would be the first of two as host Chris Eyre explores Alaska and all its Native cultures has to offer.
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: Alaska is a special place. Having never been to Alaska before, I was anxious to discover for myself just what exactly all the hoopla was about, and I figured two days would be enough. I was coming to Alaska with a mission – locate that elusive quality that takes the breath away and get it on film. In two days. If all the hype was even partly true, then two days would be more than enough time to find something, right? As it turns out, it didn’t even take that long.
First things first, though, it can’t be stated enough that things are different up there and I wasn’t as prepared as I may have thought. Yes, I knew it would be cold and snowy. Yes, I knew there would be subtle and significant differences between all the different Native groups. No, I didn’t realize the vital importance of good snow pants. No, I didn’t know that snow could pack differently than it does in Oklahoma (seriously, who thinks about that?). Suffice it to say, I’ll be better prepared next time! Next time, I’ll remember the extension cord is connected to the car before I back out.
With that out of the way, I wanted to share a little bit about the stories Growing Native looks to highlight in this coming episode. We went up there to film the Festival of Native Arts, an annual event hosted by Native students at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. The 2013 Festival was the 40th anniversary of the event that brings together many of Alaska’s Native communities to celebrate their arts and dances. Here, we got a whirlwind introduction to the more than 70 Native communities represented. We got the chance to learn some traditional dance moves, hear some beautiful songs, and then we met up with Marina Anderson. Marina served as our guide, sharing a local perspective on all this unique Alaskan gathering has to offer. Through witnessing the dances and taking part in the Festival, we had the chance to learn the value of gatherings like this one in keeping our cultures vibrant and innovative.
After the festivities, we met up with our friend Alan Hayton to check out the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre as the company prepares for an upcoming production of King Lear. This is no ordinary production, though. This version of Shakespeare’s classic is presented in the Gwich’in language. We heard the Bard’s words spoken in the People’s language, and witnessed firsthand the jump from language preservation to language innovation.
Our last day of filming started out beautifully, and by that I mean we met up with former Miss Indian World, Marjorie Tahbone, who would take us out to a spirit camp founded by respected elder Howard Luke. To reach Howard’s camp, we had to trek through the snow across the frozen Tanana River. At Howard’s camp, we spoke with him about the importance of keeping culture connected to the education of our young people. Later, we talked with Marjorie, who had been a student at the camp, and she stressed the importance of places like Howard’s camp to provide Native students the vital link that relates ideas of home and place to their academic studies.
All in all, it was a lovely trip. We were able to get a glimpse of who these people are, and the pride they take in calling themselves Alaska Natives. My two days there were full of wonder, as I was constantly learning, experiencing exciting new things and meeting amazingly talented people. As I stood in the middle of the Tanana, with snow up to my waist (sans good snow pants), breathing deep that cold, clean air, I felt like I got a real sense of where these people come from, if only for the briefest of moments. In that moment, I had an unfamiliar feeling of what I can only describe as unbounded hope followed by the fear and doubt such a feeling might bring. The people I had met, the things they were doing, it all spoke to the dauntless commitment they had to who they are as a people. Then, I thought, what will happen if we falter, if we stumble in our vigilance? I shivered then, whether from the cold or from the thought, I don’t know, and figured I better not linger too long in that place. I had good work to be done.