The old NANA Museum of the Arctic, built in the 1970s, seemed a little out of date in the early 2000s. It was like I stepped back in time whenever I arrived.
The main door was lopsided so you had to slam it closed. The light mostly comes from showcases so you have to adjust your eyes after coming in from the bright summer day. The museum smelled like hard bottom mukluks, which are made from seals. You can also smell a hint of walrus hide coming from the blankets. During lunch break though, it smells like the best Chinese-American food in town.
The main office had a laid back feel to it while performers waited on the next flight or bus of tourists. There was one little window in the corner and it was usually bright enough outside to keep the lights off.
Drummers usually tightened their drum skins or taped their broken sticks. So every once in a while, you can hear a drumbeat to make sure it sounds right. Dancers were out of their regalia so you usually had to step around mukluks and atikluks to get around the room. No one seemed to like cubbies.
There was always an ongoing open conversation between everyone. A lot of laughter came out of the main office. A door opposite side of the window led to what we called the cave. It was the cool place to hang out. Kids sat in there to hold hands or talk on the phone with their short lived boyfriend or girlfriend, because it was so dark. This was the place for secrets.
The cave leads to the main stage of the auditorium. Still to this day, the auditorium seems like the biggest place in the world to me. Bleachers split the place in half with land animals on one side and water animals on the other. Scenery is painted on the walls to make you feel like you’re outside. Animals are life size because they’re taxidermy. Behind the stage is a huge fake mountain with goats on it.
Between shows, we used to turn out the lights and see who can sit alone in the middle for the longest time. I used to be scared but as I got older, I usually found myself here for the free space. If I close my eyes now, I can just imagine being a little kid in my second home away from home. The old NANA Museum of the Arctic not only gave me a safe place to spend my summer days as a child, but it gave me a sense of pride and ownership in my Inupiaq heritage. My family never had a lot of money to live the subsistence lifestyle, so I got in tune with my culture at the museum.
When the tourists arrived, a few of us young girls would follow an older teenager to the main entrance where we greeted everyone. We loved to pose for disposable cameras in hopes of getting some cash out of it. Between shows, we would curl each other’s long, straight, and black hair. Sometimes the older girls would allow us to wear some of their make-up. We stood pretty for strangers until they all got into the auditorium. The older teenager went to introduce themselves and the show.
The show starts out with a diorama and a short film about our region. The video talks about our long history to this land and how we subsist all year around.
“We pass down our culture from generation to generation.” An old man says to narrate.
This always caught my attention because I always wondered what it meant. At the museum, we always heard talk about passing down these dances through generations. I didn’t realize back then that it meant a lot that I was learning as a young girl so I can teach other younger kids as I get older. To keep the dances alive.
After the slideshow, the lights turned out and a long show of the animals came next. They held a spotlight over animals and described what they’re useful for as tourists sit in a big dark room to learn. Sometimes animal noises would come on.
The show got interesting for us performers when it went into storytelling. They started out with a story about a big mouse.
“I am big! I am big!” A man’s voice roars over the speakers to fill the auditorium. One of the performers has a mouse shaped mask on and they are holding their arms in flex position above their head. “I am so big that my back touches the sky and my belly touches the Earth.” The story goes on to explain that eventually he realizes that he’s just a small mouse under a seal skin hide. It was told to children to remind them to be humble. Humility is a very important value in our daily Inupiaq lives. I learned that through having summer fun and acting out this story for tourists.
The next story tells about the Eagle mother and how she started gatherings in the Qargi, the community house. She does all the planning a woman would do for a get together. There’s cooking and invitations involved, followed by everyone finally showing up. This is when we all got fox masks and walked out to dance next to the Eagle mother. Finally, we all came out as a dance group to perform for them. There are girl dances, boy dances, women and men’s dances. There are family dances. There are partner dances. All these dances tell a story and we share them with the tourists until we finish and allow them to join us.
“Nalu Katak!” Our leader yelled while pushing the bleachers back at the end of the show.
“Blanket toss!” We all yell back to translate for the tourists. A couple of us carried the blanket, which smelled like walrus hide, to the center of the floor. My stomach tickled with excitement to be thrown back into the air again.
Nervous laugher filled the air when they practiced with a bucket filled with gravel. The leader taught them simple Inupiaq to follow instructions — Atausiq. Malguk. Pinasut. Ki! One. Two. Three. Go!
Before I knew it, they called me up. A couple people let go with one hand while I stepped on to get a huge whiff of the walrus hide again — a smell I still comfortably cling to the rare moments it comes around.
My calf muscles relaxed. Then my shoulders and finally my stomach. Over the silence I can barely hear a couple tourists comment about their anxiety over tossing me into the air. I let out a big breath and told them that I love to fly.
The blanket seemed to breathe right along with me.
My focus relied on the fake mountain straight across. Suddenly, I couldn’t hear anyone besides the breath of the blanket and the voice of our leader.
Chills. All over. Just waiting for that fleeing moment in the air.
All at once, the crowds voices come back. My legs and core flexed to spin me into a full circle. Within that one turn, I caught a glimpse of all the animals of our region. Starting first with the mountain, going into the water, and then the land animals.
Just as fast as I was in the air, I landed back on my feet to see the excitement in everyone’s eyes. They slapped the blanket and cheered me on. All the tensed muscles relaxed and I was ready to try again.