In June 2016, Adrienne Titus and Caitlin Tozier brought their Inupiaq culture across the world to France’s American Normandy Festival. Now as student coordinators for the Festival of Native Arts, they are helping indigenous people from across Alaska and Canada share their music, dancing and art.
The Festival of Native Arts is slated for March 2 through 4 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Davis Concert Hall. Doors open to the public at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, March 2 and 3 and 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 4. This year’s theme is “Carry Your Drum, Carry Your Culture.”
“Our songs and dance are an integral part of our traditional way of life,” says Titus, originally from Unalakleet. “They serve as the heartbeat to our cultures, in our life lessons, in celebration, the time of mourning. Our drums bring us together since time immemorial.”
The Festival of Native Arts features 28 indigenous performing groups and workshops. The public is invited to attend free workshops from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on March 2 and 3 at the UAF Wood Center. Workshop topics include a wellness workshop, song writing with language, photography through an Alaska lens, filmmaking, Alaska Native languages, Akutaq (traditional ice cream) making and beading.
In 1973, UAF faculty, staff and students organized the first Festival, which was similar to the spring village gatherings in their home communities. The Festival has been a way for audience members from across the globe to experience and learn more about Alaska’s diversity of indigenous traditions, art and dancing.
“When Festival first started, it was driven by Alaska Native students’ desire to share – share their lives, their culture and their home with each other and the rest of campus and the Fairbanks community,” says Cathy Brooks, professor of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development as well as faculty co-advisor for the Festival.
Artisans from across the state come to sell their handmade goods during the Festival. At the arts and crafts fair, you can find 30 tables filled with everything from kuspuks and beaded slippers to jewelry and traditional carvings.
This year’s event is dedicated to the late Athabascan artist, Riba May DeWilde. She was one of the Festival of Native Arts’ most beloved artist vendors and had been selling her one-of-a-kind jewelry, dolls and lamps since the early years of the Festival. “As one of the few female Alaska Native carvers, Riba created her own tradition,” says Kathleen Meckel, professor of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development as well as faculty co-advisor for the Festival. “She was known for creating unique jewelry from the bones of the animals she hunted. The Festival of Native Arts honors Riba’s memory as an artist and an extraordinary woman who courageously carved out her own path.”
Now in its 44th year, the Festival has evolved into an event that attracts performers statewide and an audience from around the world including Japan, Australia and Canada.
“For many people, the Festival of Native Arts is their first exposure to Alaska Native traditional knowledge and culture,” says Tozier, who is from Nome. “For rural and Alaska Native students like myself, the Festival gives us a sense of belonging, ownership and pride of sharing home with others. For indigenous cultures to survive, we must share our traditions with others.”