When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was already an experienced traditional dancer. My social group consisted of dancers and my identity was surrounded around it. I’d been dancing since before I can remember. It is the foundation of how I connect with the spirit. It’s the original way I learned about the depth of faith within something much bigger than us. I could feel it by this age. I knew it was real. I knew it was ancient.
There was a girl who was friends with us all at school and started to dance with us at the museum, too. But, she eventually stopped going and it was kind of gossiped about between us 8/9 year old girls. I vividly remember it being the first time hearing that the church doesn’t believe in our dancing. Her grandmother was scared of her access to our dances and forced her to stop coming with us. We were under 10 years old, talking to each other about how some elders are against our dancing.
I was under 10 years old when I knew I could feel the spirit when I dance. I was just a child when I was told that it meant I was dancing with the devil. It’s something that will always stick with me. I didn’t and still don’t understand it. Of course, I believe in a higher power. I just don’t believe in the control people want to have over it through religion. I don’t believe the church should have any power over telling an Indigenous child that their ancient practices are connected with the devil. That type of fear is traumatizing.
So, my story with spirituality is a little complicated. It’s hard to talk about what I believe in because I don’t think I have the full knowledge when it comes to my faith. It feels too controversial in my community to say I’m not a Christian. I know there’s a lot of loved ones in my life who could take personal offense to what I’d have to say about it. I wouldn’t want to be fully grouped into the aesthetic of white girls who are into magick, either. The “vibe tribe” character is harmful and offensive to Indigenous Peoples. I really just want to know more information about the faith based system our Ancestors used before the conversion into churches. I am absolutely curious about what that insight would provide for me but there’s not a lot that I can receive today.
Ever since becoming an adult, I’ve taken myself on a long journey to connect with something bigger than me. I’ve recently heard the term “religious trauma” and I couldn’t believe the relief that I felt to finally see the vocabulary to describe what I’ve experienced. I didn’t realize that what I was doing over the past decade was trying to heal religious trauma.
It’s mostly something that I hear about from the past, when missionaries first arrived to our communities. When we talk about generational trauma, we often reference this form of contact because of how much they’ve forced out of our faith system. I am the first generation to begin traditional dancing again. I am also the second generation dealing with the loss of our traditional language. My maternal great-grandmother, Hannah Wells from Noorvik, was interviewed in the 1990’s and I found the transcript of it in recent years. She talked about what her life was like:
“My mother who raised me had lived in many places, including Alatna (Indian country). She was from way upriver… In those days when she was growing up, they had not heard of the Gospel. She always said that she had not heard it at all at the time and so she didn’t know about it. But she remembers the old folks talking about the earth as having a lot of water over it in ancient time, and not much land to speak of compared to today. But one day Tulugaq [raven] used his spear and kept hitting a piece of earth that was floating, and the waters began to recede. [Note from RC: This sounds like the part of the story of the Great Flood which Inupiat were also said to have experienced in the dim past.] And so the Inupiat have lived on this land for a very long time.”
“After papa died in 1930, we came back to Noorvik for good when I was 6 years old and I attended school. I went from the first of October until April. I spoke only Inupiaq; I didn’t speak any English at all. Some of my classmates were like me, too, speaking only Inupiaq. The teacher scolded us and said for us to try to speak English. I wondered, “how shall we talk in the English language?” The teacher said that we would not attend the school party if we continued to only speak Inupiaq. That’s what the teacher told us, and those of us who spoke Inupiaq did not attend those parties.”
“I think I was mischievous. Sometimes I would get punished and then when my mom found out about it, she’d spank me again. We would have to stay after school and write on the board if we spoke one word of Eskimo. That’s when I tried really hard to learn English so I wouldn’t get punished. We would write ‘I must speak English all the time’ a hundred times… I always spoke Eskimo at home. Sheldon Jackson started that rule. I read later that he ordered the teachers to make us speak English so that we would learn more.”
“In our village, we used to have parties as teenagers. We’d get together and play games… We didn’t dance because the church didn’t believe in it. They would get after us if we danced.”
Finding out this information straight from my great-grandmother is intense. In the interview, she is an old elder and mentions the regret she held about how little Inupiaq she’s shared with the newer generations. She experienced the fastest shift within our society. She embraced the new culture but held a lot of valuable knowledge about our traditional one, too. Her daughter, my grandmother, would be the first to be sent away at a young age to a boarding school. They are both proud of their western education. My mother and I are both proud of our ability to be successful in today’s society, too. But, everything is different from these scenarios that my great-grandmother is describing.
I never wanted to compare my own experience with her own when it comes to religious trauma. I feel like my life comes with a lot more ease than hers did because we’ve already adapted by the time I was born. There seems to be some separation in treatment from outsiders back then and how it is now.
But, like I mentioned, I am a part of the first generation to bring traditional dancing back into my family. I am the second generation to deal with the decline in the use of our Inupiaq language. It always makes me wonder what is lost. When something is already gone, you never really know how to find it, you know?
When I was a very little girl, my older brother started dancing with our auntie and uncle who are just a couple years older than us. My mother only recently told me about my great-grandfather’s strong disagreement with this decision because of the church. She told me that my grandmother had to have a talk with him. She doesn’t know what was said but she remembers that the talk is what made him feel okay with us dancing again. We’re the only ones in our lineage that we know of now that dances.
But when you see me dance, you know that there’s a connection. I just don’t know where it connects to. It could be from this lineage but it could also come from my father’s side, too. There’s a lot that was silenced between the older generations and my own.
I’ve always known that deep inside of me, there is a spirit that connects to this ancient past. It is not translated through the Bible. It’s not even written in the system of astrology, which I pay close attention to. It’s something that could just be lost in these dances, this language and these stories. There’s a big silence behind this spiritual journey. I don’t think anything I write will ever amount to the insight that’s been lost through this conversion. I can’t help but feel resentment and anger towards this. It confuses me all the time.
I wish I could remember what’s been forgotten. I guess dancing is the closest way I’ll be able to understand, but even that can come with some shame today. Yes, I am proud to hold this knowledge and skill within myself. But it doesn’t erase the weight I’ve carried for twenty years now. There will always be a burden that I carry when I dance because of that belief of it being with the devil.