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News & Stories: 2008-09

Capturing a cultural revivalJuly 25, 2008

Beneath the mask, under the costume and behind
the beating drums lies a culture that was on the
verge of extinction but is now making a comeback.

This story is not an unfamiliar one to many Native Americans. Exploited by outsiders and encouraged
to "westernize,” the Alutiiq people lost much of their heritage, and with only 35 native speakers remaining in the world, the culture was about to disappear.

But a reawakening began a few years ago, and these southern coastal Alaskans have begun to embrace their culture and revive their dance.

Through her film Finding Their Own Dance: Reawakening the Alaskan Alutiiq Arts, Ellen Van’t Hof is telling their story.The Calvin professor of health, physical education, recreation, dance and sport (HPERDS) has long been interested in the role of dance and the arts as a mirror of culture.

"All of the good things about a culture are manifested in their arts,” said Van’t Hof. “The arts reflect the hearts of people.”

Three years ago, Van’t Hof was looking for a cultural story to tell. “I went to Alaska because of its richness in native culture, and it was clear that the most interesting story to tell was the Alutiiq story,” she said. “It’s a story of rejuvenating a culture that was nearly lost. It’s a universal story with universal appeal.”

Rob Prince and Ellen Van't HofWith funds provided by the Calvin Alumni Association along with various other grants, Van’t Hof interviewed local Alutiiq people participating in the revitalization as well as native speakers, who speak in heartbreaking terms about the loss of their culture. “They accepted us and let us into their lives,” said Van’t Hof, who partnered with Calvin alum Rob Prince ‘99, a video producer then living in Alaska (now, a Calvin communication arts and sciences  professor), to produce the project.

The one-hour documentary also includes scenes of children learning and performing the cultural dances and some commentary by Sven Haakanson, Jr., director of the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska.

"The film,” explained Van’t Hof, “is enlightening to people who haven’t had a struggle with their culture and heartening to those who have.”

It debuted this summer at the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center. “The people were so proud of what the film said about them,” said Van’t Hof. “They have a positive outlook on their culture again.” The film has also been scheduled to appear on Alaska Public Broadcasting, at the Anchorage Museum and at Native American museums around the country.

Van’t Hof is hoping for even wider distribution after some future showings at film festivals. “There are so many stories like this one,” she said. “It’s not just about this one culture, it’s about celebrating who we are. There was value in our ancestors’ ways; how can we keep some of that alive?”

Watch for more on the Alaskan Alutiiq dancers in your Fall edition of Spark.

~Lynn Rosendale, communications and marketing

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