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Arctic teens speak out in DVD project

By Tamar Ben-Yosef
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 9-07

Today, almost every community event in the Northwest Arctic Borough schedules a slot for Native dancing.

Until 30 years ago, those dances were discouraged and even forbidden by the influence of the church and the Western world. The dances were thought to be lost.

But a group of youth from Kotzebue has discovered these dances are very much alive on both sides of the Bering Straights.

Some time next year, the five teens are scheduled to complete a DVD movie project titled “The Lost Dances of Kotzebue.”

A trailer for the film will be presented at the Beringia Days Conference on Sept. 21-23 in the town of Anadyr in Russia's far northeast.

The DVD is a 60-minute documentary that examines through interviews and recordings of Native dances the connections between Russia and Alaska Natives in the Arctic.

It is part of a youth media project coordinated by D'Anne Hamilton, economic development director for the Northwest Arctic Borough and tribal specialist for the Native Village of Kotzebue, and Minnie Naylor, a former high school graduate from Kotzebue.

The project looks to economically develop the region and bring Kotzebue into the mainstream of a digital world.

It also seeks preservation of Native culture while giving the students a platform for personal expression.

Fortunately, the National Park Service's Shared Beringian Program, which links the contemporary and historic exchange of biological resources and cultural heritage shared by Russia and the United States on both sides of the Bering Strait, was searching for just this sort of project and granted the Kotzebue project a three-year grant totaling $105,834.

Additional funding came from the Alaska Humanities Forum, National Geographic's All Roads Program, the 2007 Qatnut Trade Fair, the Native Village of Kotzebue and the Northwest Arctic Borough.

The five students involved in the production are Frank Ferguson, Fallon Fairbanks, Jackie Lambert, Ryan McConnell and Denali Whiting.

The project is also receiving outside help from Norman Jayo, an award-winning multimedia trainer who has extensive experience with Rural Alaskan Communities through his work at the Alaska Native Youth Media Institute at the Alaska Public Radio Network and from Chriselda Pacheco, an independent photographer.

Both are in charge of the post-production stages of the movie and provide direction for quality recording and treatment of the story.

Three years ago the group began its work, starting with the basics of introduction to the equipment.

The goals were to tell the story of the dances through the dancers and the parallel story of the students themselves – how they see the dances in context to their own lives, according to Hamilton.

In addition to the interviews with both Russian and Alaska dancers, the students included personal interviews and their own touches through their personal passions. For instance, Lambert displayed her love for photography, Fairbanks her writing and Ferguson has created beats to accompany several of the clips in the movie.

In this way, the students not only learn the tools to create advanced multimedia but also take a path towards self expression.

In the future, Hamilton hopes this idea will be used in a grander scheme to heal the community by giving it the tools to adapt to the new environment the world is creating.

In addition to the full-length DVD, the group produced a shorter version that includes interviews with Martin Woods and Vica Owens, two well-known dancers from Kotzebue. Owens moved to Kotzebue from Uelen in Russia when the first boat of Russia Natives arrived back on the shores of Alaska after a long period during the Cold War, when travel to the United States was forbidden by the Russian government.

She is also known for her famous squirrel dance, which was recorded and featured on the short DVD titled “Teaching the Dances of Kotzebue.”

In their work, the students discovered that while there are some differences in the dances between the Alaskan Arctic and Russia, much remained the same thanks to Alaska radio broadcasts of Native songs that were picked up in Russia.

The DVD will be made available for viewing at the National Parks Service Visitor's Center that is scheduled to open in Kotzebue in the next couple of years.

So far, filming has been done only in Kotzebue and at the last Inuit Circumpolar Conference, but Hamilton hopes the group will travel to Russia next summer to record the dancers in their home setting for the full version movie.

This year, the project was accepted for high school credits, a fact that helps in creating continuity, Hamilton said.

“We have had some great breakthroughs and we are beginning to tap into the students own creativity,” she said.

Always striving to improve the quality of the filming and recording, the project mainly allows for students to express though words and music who they are today and what life is like here in Kotzebue, Hamilton said.

“We are working based on the idea of multi media being the portal into new technology,” she added.

“It is our way in – the point where people can begin to gain those skills and to build on our strength as a people – adaptation, figuring out how we can use this technology in new ways.”