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VIDEO: 31st Athabascan Fiddle Festival, old-time music and a sober good time

Tara Young

The annual Athabascan Fiddle Festival in Fairbanks had its first show 31 years ago, in 1983. Since then the festival has grown, and seen changes in the music, but is still thriving. The event is inter-generational, and it is not uncommon to see elders dancing with young teenagers. The dance feels like a throwback to the Gold Rush days, when such gatherings really started going gangbusters.

The popular dances back then were reels and jigs, but over the years other dances entered the mix: Jitterbug, swing, two-step, waltz and foxtrot. But the old days are not lost. Today's dances feature a jigging competition, in which dancers sport their best beaded mukluks and moosehide regalia, and dance an Irish-inspired jig that a someone from the 19th century would recognize.

Old-time music has a rich history in subarctic Alaska, which may surprise most roots music fans who know of the old-time fiddle music from Appalachia. What most folks don't know is that the British Isles music made its way to rural Alaska at the same time as the American South. Trappers and miners working for Hudson's Bay Company in the 1840s, commonly traveled up and down the Yukon River. Contact brought new stringed instruments and dances from the Lower 48 and Canada, into Alaska Native villages of the Interior. It was the beginning of a long-held tradition of Athabascan fiddle music.

Two types of Athabascan fiddle music have developed over time: “Upriver,” developed by the Gwich’in tribe, and “Downriver,” which evolved years later with other Yukon tribes. Since Native peoples learned and cultivated this tradition in such isolation, over the years the music has become its own unique thing. A blend of Irish, Scottish, English, and eventually Country-Western, but with a uniquely Native twist.

The Athabascan Fiddle Festival carries on the tradition of fiddle music by bringing together bands from all over the state, many of whom save up all year just to participate in this jubilant event. The festival prides itself on being a sober event, where people can gather for family fun, in a safe environment. Many of the organizers grew up in rural villages and witnessed how alcohol and drugs at the dances made the occasions violent. When the festival was organized in the 1980s, the elders decided no drugs or alcohol would be allowed, so that the event could be a model for the next generation. Music, and dancing with clear minds and open hearts, was exactly what the Athabascan community needed, to continue the musical tradition that has enriched the lives of their people for over 150 years.

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Contact Tara Young at tara(at)alaskadispatch.com