Kivgik – An Inupiaq Festival

When the history of George Ahmaogak’s reign as North Slope Borough Mayor is written, I imagine there will be as many pros as cons cited.  He was first elected in 1984. He is still mayor.  He was twice elected to two successive terms. Arguably, his influence on the North Slope will be felt and debated for many generations to come.

But there is one thing that can’t be debated about him. He revived and re-invigorated Inupiat dance traditions through his resurrection of Kivgiq, a dance festival now a staple of wintertime fun on the North Slope.

Inupiat dance has always been a reflection and repository of Inupiat values, histories and legends. But by the 1970s, it had fallen on hard times.

Young people were more interested in learning rock and roll.  Pipeline development was bringing in money that would quickly start a cultural implosion of immense magnitude.  Drugs and alcohol were becoming the dominant culture on the North Slope and traditional values were coming under siege like never before.

Add these factors to a culture already under pressure from a western society that saw no value in its traditions and actively discouraged its language, and you had all the ingredients for a complete loss of the traditional Inupiat culture.

By 1988, the North Slope was reeling from all these blows.  Development that had seemed to hold such promise had come with the hidden bomb of cultural destruction. Drugs and alcohol abuse had become overwhelming problems. Traditional values were lost as families earned enough money to build their own homes and multi generational families living under one roof became rarer and rarer.

Seniors often huddled in apartments at the new senior citizen center where specific rules were enacted to protect them from drunken younger relatives.  They were separated from those they should have been teaching.

It was then that George Ahmaogak, after consulting with a panel of local elders, announced the revival of the custom of Kivgiq. Ahmaogak made it clear that part of his reason for reviving this tradition was to revive pride in culture and to combat the destruction being wrought by alcohol and drugs on the families of the North Slope. 

Reviving the tradition wasn’t easy. The last Kivgiq had occurred early in the 20th century. Only the oldest community members even had memories of a Kivgiq and that came from their earliest childhood. History books were scoured to find references to the festival and its traditions.

Inupiat dance, which had long been a dying art, was the centerpiece of Kivgiq.  Interest in traditional dance was revived because without a dance group, you didn’t have anyone to represent your village at the festival.  And there was not one village on the North Slope that wanted to be left out.

There are now as many as two to three dance groups in villages where once there had been barely one. Traditional dances such as the Kaluqaq, which had not been seen for decades, are again being performed.  With the renewed interest in the dance, came renewed interest in the cultural history it carried.

At this year’s Kivgiq, there were dance groups from Hawaii, Russia and Canada.  The auditorium and gym at the high school were packed with people who were having one heck of a good time without the kick of drugs or alcohol.  Their kick came from the pounding of the drums and the stomping of their feet. And the dance groups at the center of it all had members as young as 3 learning once again from their Elders in the traditional way.

George Ahmaogak did not solve the North Slope’s alcohol or drug problem with his revival of Kivgiq. But he did give his community an alternative to them. And he gave young people a chance to learn pride in their traditions – traditions that had seemingly been on the brink of extinction.

George Ahmaogak, for all the arguments that can be made about his reign, deserves credit for bringing that back to his people.