Healing and remembering through piviking
Exactly 10 years ago, back at Qatŋut 2007, then-teenager Jacqui Igluġuq Lambert was interviewing Point Hope Elder Ernie Frankson on the beach.
"The drums, they vibrate whenever you're drumming constantly and they penetrate whoever's there watching," he told her. "It heals you."
Frankson passed away last year, but Lambert said she's carried his message with her ever since.
"He had a very powerful message," she said. "If we have troubles, we can dance and be healed by the drum and the sound of it and how our body moves with it and it brings balance to our life. It also shows respect for the land and the animals and our environment, it shows respect for where we come from and it brings a balance."
Lambert, now 25, had the honor of performing the very first song she's ever composed on this anniversary, at the very same festival.
"It kind of just came to me," she explained. "I was laying on my couch a little less than a month ago and I just started singing the song."
Her song is about the idea of "piviking" which is a hybrid Iñupiaq-English word that loosely means "trying to look pretty." She's heard the word used colloquially quite often, but just learned how to use it in its original form.
"I've heard girls use it when they talk about other girls who are trying to look pretty, 'piviking,'" she said. "But I learned to say it as an actual noun. A couple of days after I learned the word I started singing the song."
The song tells the story of a person — she describes it first as a girl — who is dressing up to look pretty and cute.
she could pivik, she could pivik
"Then, there's a little bit of English in there because I felt it was appropriate for my generation," she said. "That's how I learned Iñupiaq — it's often in half English and half Iñupiaq, so I thought it was fitting."
The second verse follows the girl as she does her job — her work — and it feels good.
she so piri, she so piri
When the song came to her, she wrote it down in her notebook, then made a voice recording of it and sent it to her auntie, Tiffany Scott, who was one of the people who helped her put on the finishing touches.
After she knew the words, she began to think of the motions that would accompany it as a dance.
"The first part is the motion of putting on blush," Lambert explained. "That's a reference to my great-grandma, actually. I never knew her but I always heard my auntie tell stories of how she always wore blush, even when she was out hunting caribou at camp she would be putting on blush. My auntie would say she'd say, 'You never know who's going to stop by.'"
The moves continue showing the person putting on lipstick, then doing a pageant wave, then, as Lambert describes, "doing the Beyonce walk from 'Crazy in Love,'" and finally, brushing dirt off the shoulders like Jay-Z.
"I want this to be a song for everyone. It didn't really dawn on me until the last night when a little girl from Utqiaġvik came up to me. She was kind of shy and kind of smiling and she finally, quietly, was like, 'I really liked your dance.' It really touched my heart. A lot of people have been telling me, 'This song is so you.' That's to be expected because I only have my own story to tell and my own perspective," Lambert said. "But this song is for other girls like this one from Utqiaġvik and another from Noatak who was a lot younger than me. I want these girls to have that opportunity while they're dancing to go out and pivik."
Pivik sometimes carries with it a negative connotation — one of mocking.
"Sometimes girls are teased when they're feminine. When they're feminine it's kind of a joke to other people," she said. "You can't be too feminine in small-town rural Alaska. It's weird to wear heels or dress up, but I felt like I know when I was that little, it was fun to feel pretty ... I'm very definitely a feminist and I feel like it's fitting for my first song to be composed about femininity and being proud of it."
She explained, though, that while she wrote it with a girl in mind, it's not necessarily a women's dance. After all, men can pivik, too, she said.
"A [boy] from Point Hope was like, 'Are you going to make moves for me?' I was joking with my friends like putting on deodorant, spraying their Axe," she said. "The last night there was a young guy from Nome who dances with the Kotzebue group and they were really cheering him on because he went up and tried to dance it, too. I encourage that. The Inupiaq language is a gender-neutral language. There's no feminine and no masculine words. It's a person, not he or she or they. So, it can apply to men, too. Maybe they can have different motions but I think it works out if they do it the way it's already made."
It's been performed a handful of times since she first shared it publicly. But, the first time will stay with her as a meaningful moment in her own story.
"I was wearing my great-grandma's atikluk when I shared that song with the public. My grandma used to have it and then my mom was given it and then my mom gave it to me just this past year. So, I felt it held a lot of importance to me when I shared this song and I started out with this reference to my great-grandma who I'd never met," she explained.
She invited her auntie to dance it with her the first time, which held significance for her own family.
"I'm pretty sure my great-grandmother wasn't a dancer because that was around the time when it was stopped," Lambert explained. "My Auntie Tiffany and my uncle and my brother, they were the first ones out of my family to start dancing. I'm not sure if it was start dancing again because I'm not sure if older generations in my family danced, but my mother's generation didn't dance and my grandma's generation didn't dance. So, we're the first ones in our family to bring it back, which is different from a lot of people."
The song and the dance and their importance to her is the kind of story that brings her closer to her great-grandmother and her culture as a whole in many ways, she said. But, it also grounds her in this time, with its contemporary moves and its obligatory Queen Bey reference. It's a dance that joins old with new.
"I believe that this is how we told our history. This is how our history is being shared," she said. "If we stop composing songs, that means we are not sharing a part of our story, so a part of our story is not being heard. That is our responsibility to tell those stories. I feel like something is missing — a piece of our story is missing if we don't compose these songs as the years go by and generations pass."
It's part of the lesson she learned from Frankson so many years ago. Every song, every dance has a story of the moment in time when it was composed. It has stories about the person who composed it.
"It just felt healing, in a way, and I feel like that's the role dancing plays in our community. It shares our history and it heals us as a people."
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at email@example.com.