Sivulliq Youth Media Group wraps up seven-year project
By Shelley Wesser, Shared Beringian Heritage Program Outreach and Youth Coordinator
Kotzebue youth forge their way into society with seven years of professional media experience and deepened connection to Native relatives across Bering Strait.
Seven years ago, former journalist D’Anne Hamilton of Kotzebue remembered working on a news story for the Alaska Public Radio Network about Russians bringing back a Native dance that had once been considered “lost” to her community. As the new Education Director for the Native Village of Kotzebue, she began to formulate a plan. Hamilton submitted a proposal to the Shared Beringian Heritage Program, a National Park Service program that attempts to bridge the gap between Alaska and Far East Russia by funding projects based on shared cultural and natural resources. Her guiding concept would aim to make a connection between the young people of Kotzebue, Alaska and Russian Natives by training the Kotzebue youth to use multimedia tools to document the cultural traditions and experiences they share as young natives of the Beringia region. The project was awarded funding by the Beringia Program in 2005 as “Arctic Teens Speak Out”. The Native Village of Kotzebue held a workshop on the use of multi-media equipment where the young people began to explore this idea of the lost dance, but as years went by it became clear that there was more to the story than one dance shared between neighbors.
In 2008, the project morphed into the project that it is recognized as today, “Finding the Lost Dances.” Through the years it became apparent that it is more a story of cultural continuity in a changing society, told through the expression of dance. Denali Whiting, now 20-years-old, says “we did a couple of interviews and filmed Eskimo dancing and realized we were working with gold. The project grew from there.” The students met with traditional dancers in Novo Chaplino and Provideniya, Chukotka, Russia in 2009 and began sharing impressions about life in their communities, the impacts of traditional dance styles on both sides of the Bering Strait and how the discipline they’ve learned through dance will influence their futures through their similar yet different cultures.
The group, who had named themselves the Sivulliq Youth Media Group, includes Denali Whiting, Frank Ferguson, Jacqui Lambert, Richard Atoruk, Fallon Fairbanks, Ryan McConnell and Nina Lie. Just as those who sit at the bow of the boat, they saw themselves leading the way, using the media tools to document their culture. They began the project as young teenagers entering high school and are now in their early 20’s. As the project approaches its completion, the Kotzebue community, Eastern Russian communities, and the Beringia Program anxiously await the final product, a 60-minute documentary, called “The Lost Dances.” D’Anne Hamilton, who now serves as the executive producer of the video, has enjoyed watching the youth grow to understand how important the knowledge of multi-media tools is to their community and to economic development. As she also now reflects, “The project has most profoundly helped the youth to understand the importance of connecting to their Iñupiat culture.”
The project also benefited from the expertise of film maker Norman Jayo. Norman, a writer, director and telecommunications consultant joined forces with D’Anne almost 10 years ago to ignite the project. They connected over a shared desire to use new technology as a means of re-centering cultural expression and as an economic driver in communities such as Kotzebue. Norman is in agreement with D’Anne on what he considers to be the primary benefit to the young project participants. He says, “While there have been many experiences that have advanced the media literacy of the youth, I believe the greatest benefit is and will continue to be what they have learned from the elders about the tradition of the dances and how that applies to their lives.” Norman and D’Anne also believed they needed to take the documentation beyond the usual: Instead of giving the youth a hand held camera and directing them to create something similar to a “home movie,” both felt it was important for the youth to learn the professional skills that it takes to be a videographer in the media world. Norman says, “These young people were put in a position from day one to work on three cameras shoots, something that is not the traditional method of training teenagers. Our approach was in the professional spirit of “on the job” to capture what needed to be recorded the right way so it could actually be used in professional production.” Norman and D’Anne worked with the youth as part of a professional team, and by approaching the project as more than just a summer workshop they were able to empower the youth through media literacy and connect them to the experiences of youth and elders through the lens of a camera.
As the “Arctic Teens Speak Out” project comes to a close, the young people are just beginning their ventures out into the professional world. Whiting, born and raised in Kotzebue, Alaska, is working towards a degree in Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She says the project boosted her pride in Inupiaq culture and she wants to learn all that she can about the history of her people so she can share with others and future generations. As Whiting reflects on the course of the project she says, “We started off as a young group, so goofing off and being a little dramatic at times was inevitable.” She says that everyone looked after each other, joked around with each other and eventually became like a family. Not only did the project boost Whiting’s knowledge and appreciation of Inupiaq culture, but it boosted her own self-confidence and empowered her to grow as an individual. In the future Denali Whiting dreams of doing a variety of different things with her life, from filming to pastry baking, and from journalism to marine biology. She looks toward a bright future with a scholarship to the New York Film Academy that she received from winning Miss Alaska Teen USA, and although she dreams of venturing out and exploring the world, her heart will always be in Kotzebue. She says she plans to return to living in Northwest Alaska after exploring so that she can teach future generations what she has been taught by the project and be more involved in the community.
Richard Atoruk, whom Hamilton describes as a natural cameraman, was also born and raised in Kotzebue and is now 21-years-old. He joined the group when he was 16 because he recognized the opportunity it provided for young people to learn about multimedia, culture, and dance. For Atoruk, the project’s emphasis on dancing has been a fundamental part of his journey. Atoruk has been dancing with the Northern Lights Dance Group, based in Kotzebue, for almost 12 years now and says the reason he started was because the museum was right next door to where he grew up and he had always admired how the audience would watch and react to the performances. He remembers participating in the Native dances a lot during the course of the project, and in one case dancing for three hours while on set in Russia. He plans to continue dancing, and hopes to get more training with multimedia in the future, as he says, “We learned a lot during the project but there is still more to learn!”