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Learning the beat

April 5th, 2013 | William Paneak Print this article   Email this article  

I'm white. Well, half white. I grew up in the city all my life, and was never really introduced to my Native culture. Hunting, drumming, and hearing the Inupiaq language was all new to me. My best friend started a dance group, and he got a bunch of his family members and friends to join. I have to admit, I felt a little left out. But I brushed it off.

A couple years later he passed away, and it was really tough for me. It was tough for everybody. We would hang out everyday after school, at gym, all the time. We would laugh so much and always have a great time. When I first heard about it, I couldn't even believe it. The reality of it never hit me until the day of the funeral. I cried so much.

In order to commemorate Derek, I decided to learn how to drum and sing all the songs he and his dance group would perform.

I have to admit, it wasn't easy. All the words sounded the same to me. I couldn't quite get the drumbeat. I was getting confused with the order of the songs. It was also time consuming. We had practice on Wednesdays and Saturdays from about 7 to 10 at night. On Wednesdays I would get off basketball practice and head right to dance practice. I know if Derek was there, he would be a big help in learning. But I had my two other closest friends there for me, Jalen and Walter. They would look at me right before the last beat so I would know when to stop. Too many times I'd hit the drum one too many times, after everybody else stopped. I felt like an idiot.

Eventually, I got it all down. We were invited to go to Wainwright for their 50th anniversary. This was my first performance, and I'm happy it wasn't in front of a lot of people. It was like a practice before Kivgiq. I was pretty nervous in Wainwright. The man I was named after was there. His name is Rossman Petook, but my grandfather gave me his Eskimo name; Iyaq. I was pretty confident that I knew all the songs. So I sang, and I sang loud. This was the first time I sang kind of loud, everyone was a little shocked.

Wainwright was over with and everyone had a great time. We dedicated our performances to Derek, and thought we did a pretty good job. We practiced for about two more months and then our dance group went to Barrow, to perform at Kivgiq. There were so many dance groups there, it was always packed. Body heat was crazy. Two groups from Anaktuvuk went: my group, Killigmiut, and Nasgragmiut. Although Nasgragmiut was the bigger dance group, we were proud of ourselves! They had so many drummers and so many ladies. But numbers isn't what matters. As long as you're there. I'm not going to lie, I was nervous. Everyone was watching.

First, before any performances happen all the dance groups march in singing a song one group at a time. So all the groups ahead of us went, and I could hear the gym getting louder and louder as we got closer. There were so many butterflies in my stomach. We were next. Everyone in our dance group got ready, and started singing. After we started to walk in, the cheers started. I could barely hear anything around me, all I could hear was myself singing. Then we got to where we sit, and started hitting our drums. We heard cheers again. I never really looked up until we got to our seats. There were so many people.

We were scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. that day. So we decided to go eat at a restaurant, and head back to the school after that. Some people from our group said there was going to be a lot of people again, and that even they were nervous! I just couldn't wait to experience it. We went back to the school, and got ready. We all put our stuff on, and got ours drums. We went on stage, and we crushed it! Everyone sang loud, all the drum beats were the same. We had a great performance. People were listening from all over on the radio. Even my mom was listening all the way in Rhode Island! She was so proud of me, that's all I ever want.

After it was all over, I am so glad I learned how to drum. I feel like I'm connecting to my ancestor's roots. Soon enough, I'll know just about all the songs! Hopefully. I can't wait to sing and dance in front of my mom, and taata. I wish I would have had the confidence to learn when Derek was alive. It would have been so fun with him.

William Paneak is 16 and is a junior at Nunamiut High School. He plays basketball and snowboards every chance he gets. This essay was written as an assignment in his high school English Class. His teacher is Colby Root.


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