On an overcast day in August 26-year-old Haliehana Stepetin hurriedly walks into an Anchorage photo studio. Dressed in worn xtra tuffs, black leggings, a gray sweatshirt and a trucker hat; an overstuffed wardrobe bag slung over her shoulder, she heads directly to the dressing room. Minutes later, she emerges wearing gloriously beautiful fur regalia from her village - her face painted in traditional Unangax style. With a regal air, she expertly performs a traditional Unangax dance while the photographer rapidly snaps photographs.
During a quick lighting change, Stepetin excitedly engages with a photo assistant who asks her what she’s studying at the University of Washington.
“I’m getting my Master of Arts degree in Cultural Studies but I’m writing my thesis on the contemporization of indigenous performance art and identity,” she explains to the puzzled assistant before sitting on a wooden stool to have a formal portrait taken.
Stepetin who has been dancing for the last 15 years, loves to perform all forms of dance from hip-hop to ballet. However, in 2014 when she was asked to develop a cross-cultural collaborative dance with UAA Professor Dr. Maria Williams, she was conflicted.
Up until the 1970s Stepetin’s village of Akutan was subjected to Western missionaries who forced the Unangax inhabitant to assimilate into American culture. As a child, Stepetin’s father told her stories about the missionaries who publicly shamed him when he tried to speak his native language. They hit him on the hands with rulers, washed his mouth out with soap and physically beat him as punishment. These were just some of stories. As a result, the Unangam Tunuu language and Unangax culture was nearly eradicated.
“I think we are always influenced by the world around us, even if we don’t know it. Like nothing is authentically mine – or at least that’s what I think. When I see, when I feel dance, all of these influences and experiences come out. When I do Unangax dance, there are all parts of me that are dancing,” she reasoned. “But because I was going to wear my traditional regalia and tattoos and dance not only my style but also incorporate and mix it with other cultures, I wanted to make sure what I was doing was respectful. So, before I agreed, I asked one of my mentors, Elder Moses Dirks for advice, and he gave me the best answer I could ever get from anyone. He said, ‘as people we are always contemporary.’ That was kind of my blessing to do what I want and not feel like I needed to police myself.”
Although Stepetin received the blessing of Elder Dirks, not everyone within her community agreed and she found herself ignored by some of the groups she had previously danced with. Despite feeling hurt, Stepetin understood that the divide caused by colonialism runs deep and not everyone would support her decision. Still, Stepetin was steadfast in her belief.
“I am interested in expanding my repertoire and interested in not essentializing nativeness. I think there’s all this essentialism around what Native is and can and can’t be. So as someone who identifies as Unangax I believe that whatever I do is enough – just like my friends who are Unangax, whatever they do, is Unangax. Native doesn’t have to be forced into a certain way of being to make it legitimate,” she said.
While Stepetin may believe that being Native does not mean one has to fit a certain mold, there are times when she has had to forcefully defend her position.
“Sometimes when I perform in front of tourists, they will come up to me and say, ‘are you even Native? Your skin is so pale and you speak English so well,’” Stepetin recalled. “My response to that is unfortunately, yes I do speak English well and that’s because America banned my language and physically took it away from my dad and my generation through punishment. It always gets super awkward but I like making it awkward for them, so they know that I’m not going to be hella sensitive to them when they feel it’s OK to be so disrespectful to me.”
For anyone who has seen the pride and skill with which Stepetin dances, it is hard to imagine her fielding these types of questions but for her, it is just another opportunity to educate.
“I am always, always wanting to share more about Native cultures especially to white people,” laughed Stepetin. “Or people who just don’t know about our culture, because it is an opportunity to breakdown stereotypes and share a part of my world with them. I think sharing is what helps break down walls.”
Still, no matter how cracked the wall, there are some things about dance that non-Alaska Natives will never truly understand.
“When I perform Native dance it’s definitely like I am talking with my ancestors and dancing with them in a different realm that isn’t necessarily conceptually here. It’s like a realm of oneness with my culture and everyone who understands my dance. There’s a different connection that only happens with Native dance,” explained Stepetin.
As a Yup’ik dancer and the Public Relations and Marketing Manager at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Kelsey Ciugun Wallace understands, as Stepetin does, that dance is an essential element of Alaska Native Culture.
“Alaska Native people have been here since time immemorial, and through dance our people are able to commemorate celebrations, ceremonial practices, and rites of passage. Our people are able to foster their creativity and storytelling capabilities, passing on traditional knowledge and practices through song and dance,” Wallace said. “When I think of birds and their ability to fly and explore, their wings opening and closing with the swoops of their flight, I imagine they feel the air under their wings. I imagine they feel free. That's how I feel when I dance. I feel a connection to my people and the stories that have been passed down. I also feel a great responsibility to my family, especially to my daughters, to dance with them and encourage them when they make the decision to dance.”
A spiritual connection to dance isn’t the only thing that binds Stepetin and Wallace. Both women are also on a mission to preserve their culture and language through the promotion of dance.
“There is a complete relationship between dance and language preservation. You can't have one without the other,” explained Wallace. “Younger kids are able to learn words in their languages through dance and are more likely to remember the words they are taught when they are repeated in the songs and dances.”
With a small population size of 2,200 and only 100 fluent speakers of their native language Unangam Tunuu, the Unangax people are at a critical crossroads. But they are only one of many tribes who are facing the extinction of their native language. Of the state's twenty Native languages, only two are spoken by children as the first language of the home.
“Because of my dad’s experience, he didn’t force me to go to school – he was really protective because of what he had been through but I wanted to learn our language. I am not fluent at all but I am proud that I can speak even conversationally. This generation is busy playing X-Box or being on the internet but they are not so invested in the importance of learning their culture and language. Honestly, I think that village life has acculturated and assimilated to ‘Americaness’ so our old ways of being are slowly fading away and because of that, we don’t have the accountability to one another to even talk about it or realize the significance of it,” said Stepetin.
Wallace, who attended a Yup’ik immersion school grew up as a fluent speaker but it wasn’t until she reached adulthood that she realized she spoke a form of language few others could.
“When I was younger, I danced because I thought that's what we did as Yup'ik people. I didn't know that it was an option not to. As I grew into my adult years, I learned that I am the first generation to yuraq [Yup'ik dance] after it was taken away from our people. My mom told me a story of how she remembers my Uppa [maternal grandfather], humming a melody. When she asked him what he was humming, he said, ‘we don't talk about those.’ I am the only one in my extended family who does yuraq today,” she said.
While some Alaska Native tribes across the state are fighting to ensure cultural preservation, a unified statewide initiative has yet to be fruitful. Whether pre-existing tensions between villages or youthful apathy are to blame is unclear but Stepetin who recently returned from studying abroad in India, is holding out hope for unification.
“I loved being in India at the Central University of Tibetan Studies because there were 80,000 Tibetan refuges who just banded together and were like you know what, we are going to keep our tradition, culture and language alive! I just wondered how did they manage to do that? Because that unity is all I want for Alaska Natives,” Stepetin said.
Once a year at the Annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, the unity Stepetin longs for is realized. Drawing between 4,000-5,000 attendees each year, the convention is the largest gathering of Native peoples in the United States. The uncontested highlight of the convention is the Quyana Alaska which is a multi-night celebration of Native dance from across Alaska. In its 35-year history, the Quyana has seen over 200 dance groups from across state perform. A perennial favorite is the Anchorage Unangax Dancers, a group Stepetin has performed with numerous times.
“At the convention there is definitely support for everyone! It’s just like this big welcoming event where all cultures across Alaska are represented,” exclaimed Stepetin.
Unfortunately, this spirit of unity and understanding has a three-day time limit and once the last attendee leaves the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage, the world returns to its status quo. Luckily, Stepetin and Wallace are just two of many cultural stewards out there who are determined to reclaim that which was wrongfully taken from them.
When asked what non-Alaska Natives can do to help Stepetin is succinct.
“Ask us questions and be serious about wanting to learn the answers! Spread awareness, go to events, be an active part of our community. When you do this, you are help to rid the shame my dad’s generation felt and you make us even prouder to be who we are.”