Qatnut Lounge returns to Kotzebue this summer

Hannah Sheldon, 18, grew up watching the Northern Light Dancers perform in the summer sun above Kotzebue. The memory of his mother, aunts and grandmothers dancing remains vivid in his mind. This year, Sheldon will help dancers return to Kotzebue.

Kotzebue’s biennial trade fair, Qatnut, is scheduled for June 30 to July 2 at Kotzebue High School, said Sheldon’s mother and one of the coordinators, Paula Octuck. The three-day event will include dance performances, Inupiaq games, an art contest, a fish-cutting contest, a clothing and fur fashion show, and art tables for people to sell. or exchange their goods.

Qatnut in Kotzebue has been the traditional gathering place for the people of the Kobuk River, the Bering Sea region and the coastal communities of the North Slope region for at least 200-300 years, bringing them together to dance, play games, sharing knowledge and bartering food,” said Kotzebue elder Linda Joule.

“It’s a gathering place where we can see people from different parts of our region in our country, and just share and socialize with each other,” Joule said.

This year, the task of carrying out the fair falls to the Northwest Arctic Borough and planners are now in the process of inviting dance groups and coordinating the details of their travel and stay. The event typically features between four and six dance groups, and this year the hope is to attract at least four, Octuck said.

“We had years when dancing was a competition,” Octuck said. “But this is the second Qatnut in a row where it has been voted to be festive – just kind of fun to be together again, celebrating our tradition.”

The fair is traditionally held every two years, but last year the event was canceled because “Kotzebue still had a mask mandate and certain requirements like social distancing requirements, that wouldn’t make this event a success. “, said Octuck.

This year, the fair was also in question: planning usually begins in late fall, but organizers started late, waiting for the challenges of the pandemic to emerge. The first planning meeting took place in April, which made the plans for this year’s Qatnut ambitious.

“We’re hoping to bring it together where we can also hold workshops at different locations in Kotzebue, share carving techniques or ice cream or popsicle donut making techniques, just to sit and talk about dancing and language preservation “, Octuck said.

Historically, the event occurs during the summer months when residents can share salmon, as well as bearded seals they hunted in May and June, Joule said. Visitors would set up camp all along our beach – one section for Point Hope, another section for people from the Nome area, yet another ????????” for Siberian Yupiks. in town would welcome people from the Kobuk River — Noorvik, Kiana, Shungnuk and Ambler — who brought caribou jerky to trade for food from the ocean, Joule said.

“It became a place of commerce,” Joule said of the fair.

Although the practice isn’t as common now, some people still trade or offer food and fishing and hunting tools, she said.

The tradition of Qatnut was discontinued when Alaskan Native cultures came under pressure from the Western world, but the fair was revived in the 1970s, Joule said. She was there when the Qatnut returned to Kotzebue and helped plan the event for the past 20 years.

All planners take on a project or piece of Qatnut they’d like to get involved in, and Joule chose dancing — another traditional practice the Inupiaq community was relearning, she said.

“My family’s generation was affected by the no-dancing rule, and we’re in a position to bring it back,” she said. “The way our songs and dances survive – there would be a vision of a dance or a story, and then there would be another person who was very good at composing music and playing drums. And they would bring that (dance) back.”

Joule said young people who wanted to bring the dance back had to go against some Elders who pushed back, but a few of the Elders agreed to teach them.

“Dancing has been misunderstood (by those who banned it): our dances are a celebration of life, and that we do it from season to season,” Joule said. “A lot of our Inupiaq dances are stories of hunting – or just stories of people.”

Joule’s children were young at that time, and she said she wanted them to learn not only the traditional subsistence lifestyle, but also “the cultural things that bring people together.” With the help of the Point Hope elders who were part of the dance group and who stayed at home, the Joule children learned the Eskimo dance.

“They used to sing for my son when he was very small – like when he was eight or nine months old,” Joule said. “Aapa, a grandfather, held him on his lap in his rocking chair, and he rocked the chair and kept the rhythm of the song and dance. … So our son learned the rhythm of the songs when he heard them grow.”

Later, Joule’s son took up dancing and preferred this activity even to basketball, she said.

Apart from the traditional dance groups that perform at Qatnut, there are also 5 or 10 minutes at the end of each performance for common dances, open to the public. That’s when everyone gets up off the floor and dances in their own style, she said.

“It’s crazy, you know, 50 people are running towards the gymnasium floor, and they’re going to dance like a storm,” Joule said. “It’s a good thing to be part of.”

Different family groups have their own dances, and when they hear their song, they must recognize it and perform their family dance.

Modern Qatnut is different from the way the Inupiat celebrated it hundreds of years ago: no one stays at the beach anymore and the practice of trading is less common. But many of the traditional aspects of the fair are returning, and more and more young people want to learn about the history of the event, traditional Inupiaq practices and the language. Some of them participate in traditional games and sports practiced during Qatnut, which helps them to gain confidence in their abilities and to feel connected to their Inupiaq community.

“The mentality of our Indigenous sports is to help the other person be the best they can be in the sport. It’s not necessarily about being the winner, it’s about doing your best in the game. event,” she said. “And if you’re the best, you know, the other people helped train you, they helped support you, do your best along the way.”

Overall the event offers something for people of all ages.

“People want to know more and develop a sense of pride,” she said. “Rather than just having words or values, they have practical activities. … There is something for everyone – there are sports, there is something for men and women who sew and do their arts and crafts. It brings a lot of interest and arouses a lot of interest.

For Sheldon, helping plan Qatnut this year involves a lot of learning. Although she has never planned events in the past, she said she enjoys learning the ropes of coordination and seeing how it’s not just a one-man job; “It’s a whole team of families doing it.”

“After seeing this event, growing up a lot and not knowing how much work and effort goes into it behind the scenes, I think seeing how it all comes together slowly, piece by piece, and all the work that has gone into it mis – I think that’s my favorite part.”

To make a donation for the community potluck, contact the borough.

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