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KNBA News - Pamyua Dances, Sings to Engage Teens with Yup’ik Culture

Mar 10, 2016

KNBA News for March 10th, 2016

Pamyua Dances, Sings to Engage Teens with Yup’ik Culture

By Hannah Colten, KDLG

The “Inuit soul” group Pamyua visited Dillingham recently for a community concert. Their visit happened at the same time as a youth leadership symposium that drew high school students from over half a dozen communities around Bristol Bay. The students had workshops about music and culture with the performers.

Phillip Blanchett of Pamyua dances with students and community members at the gym in Dillingham where the group performed and hosted a workshop recently.

Before the start of the workshop, Phillip Blanchett moved a couple tables out of the way in the long conference room. Blanchett is a singer, dancer and drummer in the group, Pamyua.  He had everyone sit in a big circle on the floor, leaving enough room in the middle for when he had to jump up and demonstrate some Yup’ik dancing moves every few minutes.

“That’s a good one, I like that one,” said Blanchett.

Blanchett spoke for nearly an hour mostly about how he relates to his Yup’ik culture.

He told stories about growing up doing subsistence in Bethel. He described the first time he ever saw Yupik dancing on KYUK television, when he was about 5 years old.

“I just remember, I could still feel it, I felt goofy doing it, but I knew that, even though I wasn’t good at it at that moment, I knew that I would be able to do it,” said Blanchett.

Blanchett has that rare ability to talk to young people about serious things without talking down to them. Everyone was captivated, from the shyest teenager to the campus staff to the elders looking on. But Blanchett made it clear that his real audience is the kids.

“Pretty soon in a couple years, you guys going be in control of your own life, making your own decisions and you’re going to want, you’re going to need the community, you’re going to need your people – the people that are going to help you out, the people that you’re going to help. Well, the Native community through the games and then Native dancing in the schools, dance programs – all those things, those opportunities are exactly the things that encouraged me to do what I do today,” said Blanchett.

There’s a big challenge that Blanchett sees, which is that a lot of those cultural connections are getting lost between the generations. At one point, he asked the high schoolers: who here speaks Yup’ik? Only one hand went up.

“I’m McKenzie Nanalook and I’m in tenth grade. I’m from Manokotak, as in Manokotak Nunaniq School,” she said.

Nanalook was quick to clarify, she understands more than she speaks, she said. But what she’s really proud of is her Yup’ik dancing.

Before she moved to Manokotak about seven years ago, Nanalook says used to practice all the time in her home village of Akiachak.

“It was very different. Over in Akiachak we used to practice moves daily and we’d even prepare for Camai Festival, and I was only in second grade and it was awesome,” Nanalook said.

She says now that she’s older and living in Manokotak, she wishes she was still practicing dance every day.

Blanchett knows this struggle. He told the group of teenagers – people often think that art and music and dance is not important, in the way that, say serving on the school board or city council is important.

“But I like to think that it is. It is very important,” Blanchett said.

When he said that, Nanalook got this huge smile. She says that’s because one of her goals is to be able to perform and travel like Pamyua does.

“Pamyua and Yuraq is totally like a lot more than student council and stuff like that. I think it’s pretty important because it is part of our culture, and our ancestors like created songs to express their feelings and it’s their culture and art that way,” Nanalook said.

At the concert, before Pamyua played their last song of the night, Blanchett hopped up to do a dance. It took a little encouragement, but soon dozens of people left their seats in the bleachers and went down to join him.

They lined up all the way across the gym floor, grownups and babies and teenagers – all waving their hands and bobbing their heads, trying to follow along with some of his silly freestyle moves.

Mckenzie Nanalook was front and center.