The Sacred Gift of Song, Dance
Retold by Martha Stackhouse (Ikayuaq)
Martha Stackhouse © Copyright 1996
Thousands of years
ago, from the time immemorial, an Iñupiaq man and woman lived along the northern
coast of the Arctic Slope.
The man was an extremely successful hunter. He hunted for tuttu (caribou),
niġliq (geese), and fished from the lakes up inland. He was also very successful
in trapping pisukaat (foxes), amaġut (wolves) and qavvich (wolverine).
Occasionally he went to the sea to hunt for small sea mammals such as natchiq
(seals), ugruk (bearded seal) and nanuq (polar bear). The woman was always busy
butchering, tanning skins and sewing garments from the animals that her husband
caught. The only thing lacking in their lives was the feeling of loneliness, as
they lived by themselves. They longed for children but it just did not seem that
it would happen. All they ever seem to do, day in and day out, was to hunt and
work. The nights seemed to be the longest when all work had been done. Most of
the nights were quiet with occasional small talk between the lonely couple.
At last, the woman became pregnant. When she made the announcement to her
husband, he became so excited that he lifted her completely off the ground!
Finally the time came when she had a baby son. What excitement they had! They
loved him immensely and cuddled him.
It seemed like it was not very long before the son started walking. He showed
signs of strength and agility. His Aapa (father) constructed a small bow and
arrow for him. Before long, he learned how to master it and soon came home with
ptarmigan. Several years later, he started hunting tuttu. He quickly became a
skilled hunter like his father. He hunted from the land and his father
preferred to hunt from the sea. The young son’s curiosity caused him to go
farther and farther away from home as he got older. He even started hunting from
the mountains. One day he had gone hunting towards the mountains as he usually
did but he did not return home. His parents waited for him as they thought he
might have been caught in a storm. Many days passed and still, he did not
return. They both searched for him everywhere but there was no trace of him
anywhere. Their lives seemed to be even more empty than ever before.
Before long, the wife became pregnant again. They absolutely ecstatic! Time
seemed to pass very quickly and the second son was born to them. Like his
brother before him, he was strong and very clever. He grew up to become a strong
young man and a successful hunter. He followed his brother’s footsteps exactly.
He yearned to travel long distances but his parents urged him not to go too far.
They told him about his older brother who did not return from his hunt. Try as
he might, he could not stay put. He had seen the mountains in the distance which
seemed to draw him towards them. One day he firmly told his parents about his
intentions to go to the mountains to hunt. He made several trips and
successfully came back home laden with furs and a strange new meat from the
mountain sheep. Just as the parents became comfortable enough with their son’s
strange urge to hunt in the mountains, he too, disappeared mysteriously. Again,
they waited an allotted time for him to come home but he never returned. They
searched endlessly as they grieved. They blamed themselves for not being strict
enough on him. They lamented that they should have forbid him to travel into the
mountains. This loss brought them to be more depressed than ever. Days would go
by without talking. They talked only when it was necessary.
Miraculously enough, the woman became, yet a third time! This time around, the
husband pampered her endlessly. Soon the third son was born to them. This one
seemed to catch on even quicker than the first two sons. He learned how to walk
at an even earlier time; and in no time at all, he began to run around with such
speed! Not only did he learn how to handle a bow and arrow with efficiency but
he also learned how to use the bola with such accuracy. He brought home
ptarmigan when he was a toddler; geese when he was just four winters; a caribou
when he was just six winters. He learned how to hunt with such ease that his
parents became worried. The parents vowed to be strict with this son and forbade
him to spend nights out by himself. He was instructed to come home nightly. He
and his father were so skilled in hunting that they had to make several siġluat
(ice cellars) to store all the meat they brought in. The son hunted from the
land and the father from the sea. One day, the son went up inland to hunt as he
usually did each day, when he sighted a large bird coming towards him from the
direction of the mountains. The young man watched with curiosity. When it was
above him, it began to circle and slowly started descending downward. It landed
a few feet away from the young man, took his hood off and instantly became a
man. In the ancient days it was not unusual for an animal to transform
themselves into human beings; and for humans to transform into animals. To the
young man’s surprise, the Eagle Man began to talk to him, getting right to the
“It was I who killed your two older brothers. I will kill you also if you do not
agree to come with me to the mountains to learn how to hold a songfeast and
dance called Kivgiq. When you have learned all there is to know about Kivgiq
from my Eagle Mother, I will allow you to go back home to your parents. But
first, you must promise to teach other humans about what you have learned from
my mother and I. Will you, or will you not come with me to the mountains?”
“It seems that I do not have a choice but to come with you; I promise to teach
other human beings about Kivgiq but I do not know what a song is; nor do I know
what a feast is.”
“Will you or will you not come with me? My Eagle Mother will teach you all there
is to know. Now answer me! I am becoming impatient! Will you or will you not
come with me?”
“I will go gladly to learn this thing that you speak of. I do not know what a
song is. I do not know what dance is. I do not know what a feast is,” the young
man emphasized again.
“I said that my Eagle Mother will teach you all there is to know! Your brothers
before you were afraid to learn something new. They were too stubborn and
refused to learn so I killed them. You are wise to agree to come with me.
Believe me, you have chosen well. Now let us go to the house of my Eagle Mother
in the mountains.”
Since the eagle had transformed into a human, he could no longer fly. However,
his coat was an impressively brilliant coat made from eagle feathers. The two
men looked majestic as they were both very strong, agile and sure of themselves.
They covered ground quickly, far into the mountains, across rivers and valleys.
They walked all day long and finally, a magnificent mountain came into sight.
They began to climb the great mountain. The Eagle Man said that their house was
on top of the highest mountain. The young man heard a strange beat, like someone
making a knocking sound. At first it was soft but as they ascended further up
towards the top, the beat became louder and louder. It began to sound like the
beating of huge hammers. As they approached the peak of the mountain, the
beating sound was so deafening that the young man could feel it within his ears
and his chest.
“Do you hear a beating sound?” asked the Eagle Man.
“Yes. What is it?” Asked the young man.
“It is the sound of my eagle Mother’s heart. We are very close to the house
The house was situated at the peak of the great mountain. The Eagle Man
instructed the young hunter to wait outside of the house as he had to prepare
his Eagle Mother to meet him. He said that his mother was very old and needed
his assistance. As the young man looked out, he was able to see the plains of
the Arctic where the humans hunted for caribou. He was in awe by the magnificent
view which greatly humbled him as he looked around his surroundings from the top
of the mountain. He wondered what the future was in store for him. He wondered
what Kivgiq meant but he was determined to learn about it so that he may return
safely to his aging parents. He was sure that his parents, at this very moment
were going through turmoil again over the loss of their third son. He was so
preoccupied with his thoughts that it did not seem long before the young Eagle
Man came for him and invited him to come into the house to meet the ancient
The first impression he had as he entered the house was that it looked so
ordinary. The house was made of sod from the tundra and logs from the trees
nearby. His eyes had to adjust to the sudden darkness as he entered. Slowly, he
began to see the decrepit old Eagle Mother who sat on the platform. She looked
so sorrowful that she looked like she might die any minute.
The young Eagle Man introduced the young hunter to his mother, “This young man
has promised to hold a songfest when he gets home. He knows nothing about
putting words together into songs; he knows nothing of how to sing songs; nor
does he understand the beating of a drum and how to dance for joy. Mother, men
do not know these things and now this young man has finally come traveling up to
our mountain to learn!”
The old Eagle Mother’s eyes seemed to glitter as she heard these miraculous
words. Her body suddenly seemed to have more life. She said: “Quyannaq! Thank
you so much for coming. You will begin lessons immediately. The first thing you
will have to learn is how to make a qarġi, a festival house, where many people
may come to assemble to sing, dance and feast.”
Under the instructions of the old Eagle Mother, the two young men began at once
to build a qarġi. It was much bigger and stronger than an ordinary house used by
men. It took them many days to construct it. When it was finally done, the young
hunter was amazed at the size of the qarġi. The old Eagle Mother told them that
they could construct the other necessary objects in the qarġi. She told the
young hunter that the qarġi could be used for making hunting implements and
festival regalia. She taught them how to make a kissautaq (round drum) made from
stretched skin and curved wood with a handle. Next she taught them how to make a
special Kalukaq drum made from wood. It was four sided with a hollow cavity. The
drum stick was narrow at the handle and thick at the other end. When this stick
struck the Kivgiq drum, it gave a deep vibrant booming sound, representing the
old Eagle Mother’s heart.
Finally, the Eagle Mother taught him how to put words into songs. She showed
them how to beat the drums as they sang songs. The younger hunter was so amazed
at discovering the feeling of joy in singing such songs! Yet, the old Eagle
Mother told him that was not all. They still had to learn how to dance. She told
her son to demonstrate how a man should dance, with clenched fists and stomping
feet to keep in time to the beat of the drums. Such a dance showed strength and
dignity of man. She demonstrated how a woman should dance like an eagle flying.
The arms should go out as if flying and the head bent down as if looking for
food. As the Eagle Mother danced to the beat of the drum, she actually seemed to
have grown younger and was so full of life!
The Eagle Mother’s final instructions to the young hunter was that he and his
father would have to go out to hunt enough animals to feed many invited guests.
They would need to construct several siġluat (meat cache beneath the ground) to
store a lot of meat. Then he would have to construct a qarġi like the one that
she had taught them to build. They would have to make many gifts to give their
guests. “When you have hunted, composed songs and everything is in order, you
may hold Kivgiq with your invited guests,” instructed the Eagle Mother.
“But we do not know of any other people except ourselves. We have gone hunting
to great distances and have not come across any other human beings.” Replied the
“You must prepare the qarġi, hunt enough to feed many people, compose songs and
make the drums like I showed you and sponsor the first Kivgiq. I assure you,
when all is ready and you go out to look for people to invite, you will meet
them two by two. Human kind is so lonely because they do not have the gift of
festivity. They need to learn how to sing and dance in order to survive. Mankind
will not survive without feeling joy.” She told him that he had learned all that
was necessary to hold the first Kivgiq. He was free to go back home to his
parents. She instructed her son to take the young hunter to the place where they
first met. The young hunter knew it had been quite some time since they had
first met. Now they were the best of friends and he would never forget the eagle
family whom he had come to know as his own.
The Eagle Man put his coat on, made from shimmering eagle feathers. The Eagle
Man looked absolutely brilliant, his manner of walk showing strength, courage
and wisdom. He told his friend to walk with him to the highest pinnacle of the
mountain as it would make it easier to take off into flight from that point. The
young man told the Eagle Mother that he would see her again, as there are no
good-byes said in Iñupiaq. He noticed a certain glimmer in her eyes. She looked
like she had more strength and quickness that she had previously. It was short
quick walk from the house to the top pinnacle of the mountain.
When they reached the top, the Eagle Man instructed him: “Lie across my back,
grip me around the neck and close your eyes, for today we will travel quickly.”
The young man did as he was told. As he had his eyes closed, he could hear a
swishing sound around him. The young Eagle Man flew with him towards the North,
the great stretch of tundra as far as you could see. Before long, they circled
and then stopped suddenly. The young hunter opened his eyes and jumped off the
huge bird. They had reached their destination where they had first met many
moons ago. He noted that it was springtime. He had spent the whole winter with
the eagle family! The Eagle Man took his hood off and the two young men hugged,
saying they would definitely see each other again someday.
The young hunter walked quickly towards home and as soon as their sod house was
within sight, he began to sprint, shouting: “Aaka, Aapa! Airuŋa! Mother, Father!
I have come home!” The parents came out from the house and could not believe
their old eyes. Their only son had come home to them! With tears in their eyes,
they began to run towards him, they hugged each other, crying and laughing at
the same time, everyone talking all at once. They slowly started walking back
towards the house. When they reached the house, the mother immediately brought
out some food for their son to eat. As they sat down to eat, he explained
everything that had happened to him.
“Human beings are lonely in our world because they live alone and they do not
know about the gift of festival with singing and dancing. I was taken by an
eagle family who had taken my older brothers before me but they refused to learn
something new so they were killed by the Eagle Man. I promised to learn from
them even thought I did not fully understand what song and dance meant. It is
truly a wondrous gift, Aaka and Aapa! The old Eagle Mother showed me how to
properly prepare for this feast called Kivgiq. She instructed me to show humans
how to make drums and celebrate with song and dance. But first we must build a
huge house called qarġi so that many people will be able to assemble. Then we
will need to hunt for lots of animals to feed them all when we invite other
human beings to come and celebrate. We will also need to make many gifts to give
to the guests we will invite! I promised the eagle family that I would teach
humans about this wondrous gift of song and dance, and I will do as I promised.”
“But where are all these people coming from? Asked his Aapa.
“The old Eagle Mother told me that when the time comes and everything is ready,
I will meet people two by two. They will be invited to celebrate Kivgiq with
us.” said the son.
The father and son immediately started making a huge qarġi, large enough to hold
at least fifty people. The mother could not believe what she was witnessing as
it began to go up each day. At last, the day came when it was completed. They
found that it was much easier to hunt for ducks and geese from the top of the
qarġi. The son went up inland to hunt for tutu; the father went down to the sea
to hunt for sea mammals. The mother fished from the rivers and the sea. They
prepared the meat and fish very carefully and put them away in their siġluaq.
The mother was constantly busy sewing parkas, skin pants, maklaks and mittens to
give away to their guests. She also made household items and fine pottery. The
father and son were also very busy making drums, sleds, kayaks, and umiat, large
skin boats. They made many other things such as nets and hunting implements. All
the preparations took two winters before they were finally ready.
In the dead of winter, when the sun was just about to peek over the horizon,
they decided it was time to hold their first Kivgiq. When all the hunting had
been done, meat prepared, all their gifts were made, the young man went out to
look for other people. He had never heard of people living other than his own
parents. This land was a very harsh country. The winters were fiercely cold with
no sign of the sun for two moons. The summers were short and cool. However, the
animals were abundant and there was no fear of starvation. He was happy to be
back with his parents and he was glad that they went along with the
preparations. At first they had gone along with him to humor him but after the
drums were made, and he showed them how to dance, they were really taken by it.
They loved to compose songs, drum and dance. They were also eager to meet other
people. The young hunter began to think about Eagle Mother and her son and
wondered what they were doing. He was lost in his thoughts when suddenly he saw
two people approaching. He rubbed his eyes to make sure he was not seeing a
mirage. The two people came closer and were very friendly. They were dressed in
all wolf clothing. He gave them directions as to where the qarġi was located and
he went on to find more people. So there really are more people here! How
excited he was! Not too long after, he came by and they were dressed in fox
skins. There were others who came two by two, dressed in ground squirrel,
wolverine, mountain sheep, polar bear and seals. He decided that he might have
enough guests and walked back with the last couple.
When all the invited guests were in the qarġi, the parents brought out all kinds
of food. They feasted until they could eat no more. As the father drummed and
sang songs, the son and his mother gave presents to all their invited guests.
They were given splendid furs and all kinds of meat for them to take back home.
They were impressed with all the gifts that were given to them by these three
people. Next, the father took out the special Kalukaq drum, the box drum. The
hollow sound was something they had never heard before. It was deeply resounding
and loud! They were told that the sound was like the beating of the Eagle
Mother’s heart, who had shown the young hunter how to prepare for Kivgiq. The
family performed a special dance for all of their guests, using the Kaluakaq
drum, with songs especially composed for them. The people were ecstatic! They
had never felt so much joy in all their lives. They had always worked, hunted
and prepared for the harsh winter. When the long winters came, they became very
lonely. Now this was something to look forward to. They danced and sang all
night long and into the wee hours of the next day. The guests began to leave
with joy in their hearts. As they bent down to go out the door, they crawled on
their hands and knees and suddenly they were on all fours. They transformed back
into their original beings. It was only then that the three realized that the
people they had invited to the first Kivgiq were really animals who had
transformed into human beings, dressed in their own skins. They were the special
guests sent by the old Eagle Mother. In those days, so long ago, the power of
festivity had given the animals the ability to transform into human beings and
back into animal form again. They had joined mankind for a brief time to help
bring Kivgiq into the world.
When the sun returned and the young man began to hunt for tutu again, he noticed
a huge bird approaching him. It circled around him overhead for a while and then
landed in front of him. The Eagle Man pushed his hood off and instantly became a
man. They hugged in greeting and talked about the first Kivgiq. The young man
was so excited because everything had gone so well. He reported that his parents
had really enjoyed themselves and are already planning for the next one. First,
they will need to hunt again and make more presents. It would probably take
another couple of winters before the next one would be given. The Eagle Man told
the young hunter that his Eagle Mother wished to see him. He, who had been brave
enough to try a completely new idea, had to be thanked properly. The Eagle Man
put his hood back on and the young hunter climbed on his back, held on to his
neck and closed his eyes. Again, he heard the swishing noise of the wings. It
was not long before they reached the top of the highest mountain.
The young hunter was indeed surprised to see that the Eagle Mother was walking
around outside. She was no longer old and decrepit. She had actually grown
younger! The Eagle Mother told him that she wanted to thank him personally for
holding the first Kivgiq. She told him that whenever man holds a festival of
song and dance, all old eagles become younger. The eagles had done their part in
introducing the festival called Kivgiq where there is not only singing and
dancing, but also gift exchange takes place without inhibitions of holding back.
It is also a time when possessions are exchanges in trade between settlements.
Most of all, it is a great gathering of people to see relatives and friends. It
is a time to share, not only material goods but is also a time to share love and
peace in the world. It is a legend that many hold to be true. It is a legend
that sets the setting of the great trade fairs that originated in the ancient
times…. aipanni, since the time, immemorial. This legend was first recorded by
Knut Rasmussen who was an Inuit that dog teamed from Greenland to Siberia
between 1920-24. He stayed in each settlement to hunt, rest and to record
stories and legends as he traveled along. This legend was told to him by
Sagdluaq who resided in the North Slope Region along the Colville River.
Story told by:
Martha Stackhouse © Copyright 1996
Photo and art credits:
University of Alaska Fairbanks
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