Passing Music on to Alaska's Youth

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25 May 2008

Dear friends,

Thanks for all your prayers and financial support. We're happy to report that in this past year, we have spent 8 weeks in school programs and 2 weeks in summer camps, plus have arranged for almost 50 instruments for kids. We're busy fundraising for our summer camps The national Episcopal Church Native Ministries just gave us a grant for $10,000! And various tribal and community organizations in Tanana will probably be donating $2,000--but we still need at least $5,000 more--so keep praying and let us know if you have ideas on ways to get there. Our hearts are aching as we lost Dan Ison, one of our summer camp staff members this last week. Keep his five young kids, friends and family in your prayers. We'll be setting up a fund to help his kids with music and other after-school activities.

My son Mike and I just returned from teaching kids guitar and fiddle at the Beaver Spring Carnival. There were some great Native and Athabascan fiddle dances with visitors from Stevens Village. Mike entered the wood spliting and sawing contests and we tried the tea-making event. The villagers really laughed to see us trying to get a fire going under our coffee can of tea water! I was in Allakaket on the Koyukuk River for Easter. Eighty-two villagers were packed in their log cabin church. Kids were everywhere sitting on the steps by the altar and all through the front of the church. There were 11 baptisms including a set of twins! Afterwards, the kids and I played music in the tribal council offices and Grandpa Moses jammed with us on his fiddle.

The week before, my son Mike and I taught guitar, fiddle, mandolin and banjo in Arctic Village. We sang Hank Williams and Johnny Cash songs—and Sweet Bye and Bye in English and Gwich'in… I knew I had arrived when I found myself singing the chorus in Gwich'in in my dreams. My son Mike and I were able to spend the month of December in six villages, teaching guitar and fiddle and helping with church services. The tour began in Beaver, a small town along the Yukon River. We flew in a small plane with lots of excess luggage—guitars, fiddles, mandolins, and a banjo. We were all bundled up in case of an emergency landing. It was 45 below when we landed in the winter twilight and loaded everything on snow machines for the short ride to the school. We were teaching within an hour of our arrival as they held "Saturday School" in our honor. Here, as in all the villages,
kids were so excited to see us come! It was so great to see their smiles as they picked up guitars or a banjo… I loved what 7 year-old Allison Fisher-Salmon told me as I played the fiddle for her. "It talks," she said, "it talks!" 

In Stevens Village, the kids giggled and laughed as they tried square dancing by themselves. We held church there in the gym right before the school concert and community square dance. Robert Joseph brought "church in a box" on his snow machine—two wooden Blazo boxes filled with prayer books, a bible, and beaded altar decorations. All the kids played along on the Christmas carols.

In Tanana, Pete Peters traveled with us and brought Native drumming and language. "Indian Rock and Roll" was the kid's favorite. Dorothy Jordan, the superintendent, taught the "two-step" and Pete taught "the jig."

We helped with the big Christmas Concert and dinner at Arctic Village. Kids played fiddles, guitars, mandolins, and banjos and sang Jingle Bells, Silent Night, The First Noel, I Saw the Light, and You are My Sunshine. Outside, it was 40 below and the moon shone on the snow-covered ground. Elders Gideon James, the Rev. Trimble Gilbert plus Wilbert Kendi helped my son Mike and I teach music all week. They are from the Athabascan Indian fiddling tradition of rhythmic foot stomping and dancing. The kids loved it and many stayed after school to play just one more tune!

I'm still amazed at how fast all the kids learn. We use color-coding and simple notation. We made four week-long visits to both Arctic Village and Tanana this year—and junior high and high school fiddle students can easily play over twenty-five songs including Amazing Grace, I'll Fly Away, Liza Jane, Will the Circle be Unbroken, and
Faded Love. The best part is the joy they feel—and the sense of accomplishment. On the guitar, it only takes a few days to learn the chords and start flatpicking. The mandolin is great for little fingers because there are two finger chords. We don't have a lot of banjos and acoustic basses—but hopefully that will happen soon! There were fresh wolf tracks along the road as we drove in from the Allakaket airport… We held Christmas Sunday services at the Tribal Council offices. There was one bible and one prayer book—and we used a plastic coffee mug for a chalice… Later, we held a bluegrass workshop for the kids and that evening hosted a square dance with Grandpa Moses on fiddle. The next day we flew into Hughes. We hauled the instruments over the snow by moonlight on plastic sleds to the community Christmas dinner to teach the kids. Santa came and passed out presents amid much laughter. Then we had Christmas Eve services in the warmth of a wood stove at the log church. I'll never forget the beauty of all our faces reflected in candlelight as we played and sang Silent Night.

Right after the first of the year, I headed to New York State for a visit to the Kingston St. John's Episcopal Church arranged by the Bishop of New York. We did a mini-music camp with four days of 2 hour sessions for the St. John's youth group—and lots of other young people who just heard about the camp. Parish musicians and the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association helped with the teaching. The Alaskan band Bearfoot and Bishop Mark MacDonald, the new Indigenous Bishop of Canada arrived to lead the last day of camp—and visit the Presiding Bishop's staff in New York City. The Rev. Ginny Doctor, Alaska's Canon to the Ordinary, came in for this meeting to let the national staff know about Dancing with the Spirit. Check out our story on the internet! The next day, Bearfoot played to a packed St. John's church. Apache musician Roland Moussa opened the concert after a Native Alaskan crafts silent auction. Many thanks to our host, the Rev. Duncan Burns of the Muskogee Creek Nation, his family and parish—and all the great people who made these events in New York State so awesome!

In other exciting news, the Presiding Bishop's staff has invited us to lead a guitar workshop at the Episcopal Youth Event in Texas in July and we're hoping to help St. John's Kingston with teaching guitar on their mission trip to Navaho Land. St. John's on Maui is planning an Hawaiian Bluegrass Camp June 13-22. The Tanana Camp is May 27-June 1, Arctic Village is June 3-8, and Beaver June 10-15. Keep us in your prayers! Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to:

Dancing with the Spirit
Episcopal Diocese of Alaska
1205 Denali Way, Fairbanks,
Alaska 99701

Baa'sa, Masik cho, THANKS SO MUCH!!

Love and blessings, Belle

The Rev. Belle Mickelson, Box 1362, Cordova, Alaska 99574
(907) 424-5143 home; (510) 637-8401 (cell)

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