He played the crowd as well as his drum made of walrus stomach.
Visiting Yup’ik artist John Waghiyi Jr. drew big laughs, fun sounds and applause Wednesday during a presentation at Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Shúka Hít clan house. Waghiyi, who drew thunderous sounds from his drum via a hickory stick, was joined on stage by his wife, artist Arlene Annogiyuk Waghiyi, and niece, Rene Mokiyuk of Juneau.
“It was empowering,” said John Waghiyi Jr. in an interview after the show. “I feel incredible. It was so powerful. So much energy.”
During the song and dance show, John Waghiyi Jr. told stories about the life and culture on St. Lawrence Island, which is an island past the far western edge of the state.
“We grow up on the Bering Sea,” John Waghiyi Jr. said.
He said seals, walruses and bowhead whales are the neighbors of the people there, and shared stories about whaling. However, two of the songs performed were respectively inspired by basketball and rock ‘n’ roll.
John Waghiyi Jr. said on stage that’s the result of a cultural blending that happened as people from St. Lawrence Island made their way to other parts of the state for boarding school.
Beginning in the late 1800s and lasting well into 20th century, it was common practice for indigenous peoples in both Alaska and the rest of the United States to be sent to distant schools to encourage, or in many cases force, assimilation.
John Waghiyi Jr. said that influenced Yup’ik songs written in the ’50s, ’60s and ’80s.
The song about rock’n’roll led to an onstage group dance with guitar-like hand motions and hip swiveling in the mold of Chubby Checker.
Audience participation was a near-constant throughout the performance.
John Waghiyi Jr. was able to goad the audience into making walrus sounds, clapping their hands, stomping their feet and even doing the twist. At one point, he encouraged the audience to go “beast mode” when clapping along to a song.
“It was a great audience,” he said after the show.
Mokiyuk, who is hosting the Waghiyis while they’re in town, said John Waghiyi Jr. is friendly and funny off stage, too.
Mary Aparezuk, who is Yup’ik, was part of that audience and danced along to some of the music.
“I only knew the first song,” said Aparezuk. That didn’t stop her from moving to some of the other music.
Aparezuk said she is originally from Kotlik, a small city of fewer than 600 people near the mouth of Yukon River, and her uncles knew Waghiyi through school.
“It was good to hear the drum,” Aparezuk said.” When you hear the drum beat you feel like you’re home.”
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.