Overheated, Inuit Country and Western, Inuit dancers, Qivgik, Northern Lights, and fireworks


We went out to watch, not to dance,

We went out to walk, not to prance

     To outdo Northern Lights

     We were watching last night

You would need some federal grants.

 Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  Avoiding burnout, I’m taking a sabbatical while my one-year non-compete clause winds down, having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places.  Currently I’m on assignment at the hospital in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States.

Qivgik, the Messenger Feast, started Wednesday.

A hundred years ago, one village would send a messenger to another village to invite them to a feast.  In the depths of the winter, most of the village would brave the cold and the snow to cross the tundra.  The party would last four days, with gifts from the host village at the end.  After recovery of a year or two, the invited village would return the favor.

Bethany I have had the luck to witness Barrow hosting Qivgik this year.  In the 21st century, most arrivals came by plane, few came by snow machine, and no one came by dog sled.  They flew in from Canada, Siberia, and Greenland.

Of course, most of the time I worked so late I was too tired to attend.

Yesterday the clinic’s heating system outdid itself as beastly hot; I suspect the department couldn’t have gotten hotter without installing microwave equipment.  With the extra population of Qivgik comes extra illness and injury, and my work day went late, without time to stop to drink water.  I finished sweaty, tired, overheated, on the brink of dehydration.

As hot as I was I didn’t suit up all the way, and we walked into a still night at 20 below Fahrenheit (30 below Celsius).  The fresh cold air, sharp on my cheeks and ears, came as a soothing relief. 

The snow squeaked under our boots, high-pitched as tortured Styrofoam .  Three blocks later, I was still too hot when we arrived at the Roller Rink to listen to the Bethel Fiddlers.

We brought no expectations to the listening.  Two guitarists, a bass player, and a drummer stood around the fiddler/singer who occupied center stage.  They played Country and Western, the same genre that dominated Casper, Wyoming when Bethany and I courted each other.

We hadn’t expect that music to come so far north.

The entire band, and most of the audience, were Native (they prefer the term Inuit or Native to Eskimo).  One couple two-stepped on the dance floor.  After a while, Bethany and I got up to dance, and we could see the other couple, our age and Native, were very much in love and having a great time.

We fox-trotted and waltzed and fox-trotted some more, then we went back into the night to the Barrow High School gym.  Sort of like bar-hopping without the bars.

People dressed casually for the Arctic chill, and I commented to Bethany how well we’d acclimated to the low temperatures.

In the few short weeks we’ve been here we’ve met enough people that we were greeted by name.

In the gym we watched the Natives dancing for themselves, not for the tourists.  They danced with passion, power and skill; the motions telling epic stories of adventure, danger, and triumph, and I could only understand about a third.

At one point a well-costumed young man danced while the sixteen men and women behind him drummed and sang.  Smiling, a Native man my age dressed in the blue-collar uniform of jeans, t-shirt, and baseball cap walked on, looked at the younger man, bobbed twice to get the rhythm, and started dancing.  In twenty seconds he was joined, one by one, by four others of similar age and dress, all of them grinning.  They danced well, the motions describing canoeing, hunting, and caching meat.

We left before midnight, crunching through the snow back to the apartment.  I had cooled down to the point where I buttoned up my parka, but I left the hood down.

At the apartment we sat in the darkened room, pulled the shades up, and watched the action on the frozen lagoon in front of us.  Trucks drove in circles; snowmobiles zipped back and forth, cars parked on the levee.  We talked about what we’d done that day and the dances we’d seen at the Roller Rink and the gym, we agreed contrast ruled as the essence of meaning.  People clustered more and more around the Nalukataaq grounds two hundred yards away, Bethany fell asleep, while I watched a pale green glow in the sky above the Arctic Ocean.

I woke her up when the fireworks started.  The whistlers and fountains lit up the night while the Aurora Borealis intensified and swept silently back and forth across the sky.

It was the best non-federally funded display we’d seen.

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