In the Darkness, Dancing
It’s New Year’s Eve in Kivalina, Alaska, eighty-three miles north of the Arctic Circle. All two hundred villagers plus several teachers and spouses (from the Lower 48) gather in the small Presbyterian Hall. We squeeze together, jean-covered thighs and mukluk-clad feet touching. Not a chair in sight, just a wooden bench for three of Kivalina’s oldest and frailest, whom I’ve only seen before at funerals.
We share a feast: caribou soup, raw fish, panuktuk (dried seal meat), sourdough bread, berry pie, and Eskimo ice cream (don’t ask for its ingredients). Then the final night of Eskimo games begins – tests of endurance that the Inupiat have shared for thousands of years. I nab second place in the “high kick” by striking a ball that keeps getting raised higher and higher on a long stick. But more exciting than my near-win is the knuckle walk, the strangest and most taxing of Eskimo games, where young men crawl across the floor in a kind of moving plank, by balancing on their toes and knuckles. In their wake, they leave tiny oblong-shaped spots of blood on the cement.
Almost midnight, the organizers clear a spot in the center and begin Eskimo dancing. The incessant drums, the woman’s graceful folding and unfolding of arms and bending of legs nearly lull me to sleep until Oscar Swan, one of the village leaders, calls out, “Now, we begin the Virginia Reel.”
My husband and I look at each other and raise eyebrows. Really? The Virginia Reel on a sand spit jutting into the Chukchi Sea?
But soon we learn the square dance; yes, we are new to it. We strut four steps forward and four steps back, approach each other and turn, do-si-do, reel, gallop up and down the line then stroll under the other couples’ arch-making arms, the rest of the group trailing behind us, then separate and race down the line. 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock we dance until our faces turn red and drip with sweat. By 5 o’clock, my woolen socks sport holes, yet we continue twirling and promenading for another hour, until blisters poke out from my heels. Finally at 6 a.m., the villagers call the New Year officially welcomed in, and we head home through the dark, avoiding hummocks of sled dogs sleeping curled under the snow.
together hearts pound
on the high homemade bed –