Oh my, how time does fly!
It’s been over two months since Kivgiq. I’ve been meaning to write something about that since, well, …since two months ago. I’ve also been putting it off while catching up on other things. But you never do catch up, do you? And Kivgiq is worth a moment of bloggetry, so here goes!
So, what the Hell am I talking about? I’m talking about the Messenger Feast! At this point, it’s a biennial celebration taking place in February here in the North Slope. All the other villages of the North Slope are invited to several days of singing and dancing, and of course to a grand feast. Mostly, it means Iñupiat dance troops from all over the place. Sometimes folks even come in from Canada.
February is a special time of year in the North Slope, owing to the rapid return of the sun. It’d difficult to convey just how much that means to folks. After two months of polar midnight, people are ready for it. More than ready for it! And it’s return is spectacular. By February, we are starting to have something resembling an actual day here in Barrow, and yes, this is one more thing to celebrate.
Having recently picked up David Graeber’s chapter on the Myth of barter in Debt: The First 5,000 Years I was particularly interested in the role this feast may have played in the traditional economies of the region. One of the most interesting chapters in Graeber’s work details the absence of barter within small-scale small scale communities (this despite all the efforts of economists to put it there via thought experimentation). What happens in such communities, according to Graeber? Well people share the resources within their own community; they barter with outsiders, particularly those with whom they might be as likely to fight as to trade. Graeber further notes that the possibility of violence is often worked into the symbolism of the exchange.
To see the cooperative economics of the native community in Barrow, one needs only look at the whaling activities and subsequent distribution of muktuk throughout the community, though I suppose if you were looking for a ritual that enshrines this practice it would be Nalukataq in mid to late June. To see the tradition of bartering with neighbors? Well, now that would be Kivgiq, at least as it was initially practiced.
Charles Brower Sr., a town patriarch of sorts, provided a description of a Messenger Feast from the early twentieth-century which is particularly striking. Two messengers had been sent out to other villages, returning with the guests in July. The feast began as it does today with a footrace. Afterwards…
The main body of visitors followed, two hundred or more stretching out in a long line. Some bore mysterious packages on their backs, others dragged sleds piled high with skins. Everyone was dressed in his worst. I never saw a more disreputable looking crowd – nor one whose tatters covered more suppressed excitement.
Just above the station they were met by a picked up group of village men, naked to the waist. Each wore a loonskin on his head and carried a few arrows and a bow. Suddenly they gave a yell and started shooting over the heads of the strangers. Their arrows gone, they then retreated to the dance house where the rest of the crowd was congregated, still a bit put out over the results of the foot race (the local participants from the village of Utkiagvik had been soundly beaten).
At this time our messengers who had supposedly returned with the guests were nowhere to be seen. They’d have a hard time sneaking in the dance house now, I thought unless they too had dressed in old clothes, hoping to mingle with the guests and escape detection.
I was scanning the crowd with this in mind when a riot broke out in the doorway. A group of visitors laden with rolls of deer-skins, were demanding entrance, the guards steadfastly refusing to let them through. Higher and higher rose angry voices until, with final protesting shrieks, the guests were forced to unroll their deer-skins, and there inside lay our messengers, nearly smothered by heat and stifled laughter.
Mungie came by, grinning broadly. an old trick, he said.these inland people must have thought we’d never heard of it.
Our ‘home folks’ furnished the music that first day, visitors doing the dancing. A man and a woman would enter and dance, then loudly announce what they had brought for the one who had invited them. After which the recipient joined in and all three danced together.
Later the women disappeared to make ready the feast – mostly whale meat and seal. Many of the inland people, unfamiliar with such delicacies, couldn’t get the stuff down. Lucky for me that I’d learned to take my muctuc like any coast native, for this enabled me to join the crowd in making fun of our visitors. Their only comeback was to hint broadly at what they expected in return for their presents.
Since it was a matter of tribal pride that visitors be satisfied or else given back their own presents – a most humiliating procedure, our people went to ridiculous lengths to meet the demands. Many sold their whalebone to provide needed funds. A few of the poorest even asked for additional credit at the station. Anything to uphold the reputation of Utkiavie. It was silly – and a little touching.
I hadn’t yet seen our visitors at their best, for all this time they had been wearing their most ragged clothing. But when they took over the drums the second day while our crowd danced it was like the transformation of cocoons into butterflies. Decked in all the finery they had brought in bundles, they certainly were a fine looking lot of people. Many of the men were six feet tall. Even their women seemed larger and better looking than average Eskimos.
The third and last day was given over to the actual exchange of presents. I say ‘exchange.’ In reality it turned into one grand bargain-driving spree. If a gift fell below expectations, the owner kept adding to it until he had nothing more to offer. And when this failed to satisfy, the other par6ty demanded his present back even though he often sold it later for whatever it would bring.
I’ll end the narrative there, both because that is the relevant portion and because the whole story soon takes a tragic turn. After trading with non-native whaling crews, the guests contracted a disease, Brower figured it to be a kind of flu. Severely weakened from the flu, they elected to return home. For some time, the bodies could be found scattered along the river way headed inland, Brower doubts that any made it home.
What Brower saw was one of the last celebrations of the Messenger Feast held in the early twentieth-century. By the 1920s, natives had stopped holding this feast entirely. It would not be revived until 1988 when North Slope Borough leadership held the first Messenger Feast in roughly 80 years.
The Messenger Feast still retains many of the same themes present in Brower’s description, though specific details vary considerably. If I had dragged my butt out of bed early enough to catch the race, I could tell you all about that, but well, …I suck.
Seriously, I do.
The tradition of gift giving is still present, though it is less central to the ritual. People give a broad range of gifts to others (though items with a distinctively Iñupiat cultural significance seem to figure prominently in these events). One often sees the gifts sitting on the floor of selected open dances (in which any in the audience are invited to participate). Special gifts sometimes merit a moment in the spotlight for those involved. Either way the giver and the recipient will be out there for at least one dance.
I have asked a number of people whether or not reciprocation is expected, and or how that might be structures. The range of answers I’ve collected so far defies my ability to interpret all the variations. I most definitely did not see haggling, or heated exchanges over the value of the items in question. And if the significance of this theme has faded a bit, I would suggest that is at least partly due to the changing local economy. Gone are the days when inland and coastal peoples would have provided distinct contributions, much less the days when an event such as this could have presented a truly unique opportunity to get exotic foods or products. What remains is a symbol of generosity, albeit one with a very interesting history.
My favorite event in Kivgiq would have to be the box-drum dance, but I’ll save that material for a follow-up post. I wasn’t that happy with my pictures this year, but I think a few of them are worth sharing. If you click the pictures they will of course embiggen.
I just have one video here that I will include in this batch. It stands out for me, because it illustrates so wonderfully the role of children at these events. Planned or unplanned, they are seemingly always involved in the performances. And if that lends a little chaos to a dance, then so much the better.