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Celebrating cultural heritage: Festival of Native Arts a valuable experience for participants, spectators

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News-Miner opinion: Though winters in the Interior are cold and dark, that makes the return of the light in early spring an even more welcome occasion. For 44 years, the Festival of Native Arts has helped residents celebrate the re-emergence of the sun in early March. The event is held all day today, Friday and Saturday in the Great Hall and Davis Concert Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. It’s a great opportunity for residents and visitors alike to share in cultural celebrations that mirror the joy of the approaching spring.

When the festival began in the 1970s, it was a much smaller and more reserved affair, according to organizers. Dance groups consisted of elders, most of who performed in formal Western clothing. Perhaps a half-dozen members were in each group. 

The contrast to the present day is stark: The event attracts hundreds of performers from across the state, sometimes with dozens in a performing group. Eleven dance acts will perform on each of the three days of the festival, and dozens of vendors outside the performance hall sell traditional arts, crafts and food.

The Festival of Native Arts is a singular opportunity for sharing culture among and between geographically isolated villages and tribes. In addition to the popular dance performances, which draw hundreds of spectators to the concert hall, participants are hosting several free workshops from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. today and Friday in the Wood Center. These workshops cover topics such as language, filmmaking, songwriting, akutaq (traditional ice cream) making and beading.

The importance of sharing traditional songs and dances among the festival’s participants is difficult to overstate. Traditional music and dancing was barred in many villages by the religious leaders who opened boarding schools and sought to convert Native people to the Christian faith, and it has been only through decades of concerted effort that the performances shared at the festival have been revitalized and spread beyond the handful of village residents who took it upon themselves to be the keepers of the songs.

The events of the festival are just as important, albeit in a somewhat different way, for local residents and visitors who come to share in the goings-on. The festival is a unique opportunity to witness positive aspects of Native culture outside most people’s realm of experience. Some of the dances held at the festival are invitationals, giving spectators the opportunity to partake in the celebration themselves.

The events at the Davis Concert Hall start at 5:30 p.m. today and Friday, and 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. If you’re interested and want more information, you can find it online at, as well as a complete schedule of events. If you’ve never attended the Festival of Native Arts, take some time this week and broaden your cultural horizons. You might well be surprised and gratified by the experience.

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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at Contact the editor with questions at or call 459-7574.

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