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The Athabascan Stickdance is held for one week every March  by the Athabascan Indians of Alaska.  The Athabascan Indians take their name from Lake Athabasca in Canada.  Athabasca is derived from a Cree word meaning the way plants or grasses grow in the shallow end of a lake. The spelling of the tribe name varies from Athabasca, Athapaskan, Athabaskan and Athapascan.

The Stickdance is named after the spruce pole, which is the central symbol in this ceremony. The purpose of this ceremony is to help mourn the male members of the tribe who have died; and, give comfort and support to the grieving family members. The ceremony is observed in Nulato, AK which is in the western central part of the state on the banks of the Yukon River. It is also observed in Kaltag, which is about 35 miles further down the river.  This celebration is not annual.  It can be held 3 or 4 years apart.

The sponsors of the ceremony are the widows of the deceased men, along with other family members.  The ceremony takes place in the tribe's central hall or community center.  It begins on a Monday.  Every evening from Monday through Thursday people gather there to participate in the Potlatch, which is a ceremonial feast; or, to share food in a less formal manner.  People also sing and dance, and get together in small groups to share their memories of the departed male. The actual Stickdance will take place on Friday night. Since this dance can honor more than one male member who has died since the last ceremony, there can be hundreds in attendance.

The Stick Dance

The men of the tribe put up a tall spruce pole in the center of their community hall.  The family and friends then decorate it with their gifts. Once that is done, everyone joins in a dance around the pole that is slow and shuffling in character. They chant ritual songs all night long while doing this and meditating (privately) about those that have died.

The pole gets taken down the next morning (Saturday) and its carried past each home in the village on it's way down to the Yukon River. There it is broken up and thrown into the river, which is usually still frozen this time of year. But, eventually the river thaws and melts and the shattered remains of the pole is carried to the sea.

The rest of the weekend is taken up with activities that help the bereaved families deal with the loss of their loved ones.  Some men of the village are selected to represent the dead. These men dress up in the deceased person's clothing and bid a final farewell to their famly and friends.  Gifts that have been either purchased or made by the family are distributed to every person who attends the Stickdance, as a way of showing appreciation for their friendship and support.  There is also more feasting on traditional Native American foods.

The Stickdance isn't done annually. So, even though a few years may go between the actual death of a loved one and the Stickdance Ceremony to honor his memory, the Athabascan approach to handling the grief and loss seems to be very effective.  Surviving family members feel that the opportunity to focus on their memories of the deceased and to receive the support of the entire community is invaluable. And, that the Stickdance makes it a lot easier for them to let go.

Gift Giving

Since everyone who attends the Stickdance is given a gift by the grieving family, the immense amount of gifts that are needed to distribute to all attendees is the reason why it often takes a family years to prepare for this event (and why it's not annual.)  This is somewhat opposite of traditional Christian funeral where those who attend bring food and money to the bereaved family.  But, the Athabascan's usually make hundreds of individual gifts for the Stickdance members.  It might take two years or more to gather enough fur, wood and other materials needed for these gifts!  This is why they usually wait until several families have had a death and are prepared with their gifts before a Stickdance is held.

Potlatch

The potlatch meal is central in Athabascan funeral rites.  The first potlatch is held soon after the male dies when his body is buried.  Another potlatch meal is held during the Stickdance ceremony.  Moose meat is the traditional dish to be served.  But, this means that the moose has to be killed off-season and hunted specially for these Athabascan rituals. This has caused some legal issues in the State of Alaska whether or not Athabascans who kill moose off-season for such ceremonies should be prosecuted. More detailed information on potlatch is also on our Kwakiutl Midsummer Ceremony page.

Ritual Songs

The songs sung during the Stickdance have been handed down from generation to generation by the native Athabascan people.  Originally, there were 14 songs.  But, one has been forgotten and only the tribal elders know all the words to all the remaining 13 songs.  These songs are called hi'o keleka and the Stickdance is the only occasion at which they are sung (or chanted).

The Spruce Pole

The Stickdance gets its name from a 15 foot spruce tree trunk, in which all the branches have been stripped off.  It is then decorated by wrapping ribbons around the rough wood.  Furs and other gifts are then hung from the pole, which to some resembles a Christmas tree. The spruce pole symbolizes the dead and is the focal point for the memories and thoughts of the surviving family members and friends.

Return to our  March Holidays Listing Page.

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

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