BETHEL, AK – On February 9, Francesca Sosa shared a video of her six-year-old daughter, Olivia, on the Yupik Eskimo Dance Facebook page. Within hours, it was shared widely across Indian Country, then the rest of the country, then the world. As the video was making its rounds across the internet, the page’s administrator, Marie Chiklak, asked why she suddenly had so many new requests to join the page, and people from all over responded, “The little girl!”
Chiklak, who studies Alaska Native governance at Alaska Pacific University, says she has been dancing her whole life. She created the page around ten years ago so Yup’ik people could share dance videos and stories, but she made the page public “for anyone to enjoy and share.” And that is what more than 11,200 people and counting continue to do with Sosa’s video – share.
The video shows Olivya doing Yup’ik dancing in her family’s kitchen. She wears winter-themed leggings and a grey shirt printed with the phrase, “Let it go. Only an act of true love will thaw a freezing heart,” from the movie Frozen. She begins with a smile, keeping rhythm with the recorded singing by bending her knees as she narrates with her hands in the Yup’ik dance style, which usually incorporates fans. A big white dog passes through the shot, but Olivya isn’t distracted.
Her face gets serious when the drums kick in, and then she smiles again as the dance goes on. The video ends before the dance does … but I’m sure most of us clicked “start” again to watch the whole thing over several times before sharing it. And hearing Olivya’s story might explain why everyone who saw her dancing was so moved: She is part of the generation helping restore Indigenous languages and cultural practices that the US government attempted to eradicate.
Sosa says Olivya was something of a miracle to begin with.
“Olivya was born two months early because of a slip and fall on fresh snow and ice in Anchorage, Alaska, where my kids are from,” explains Sosa. “She stayed in the Providence NICU [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] for almost two months before we could bring her home. When I did bring her home she was only 4 pounds, 9 ounces. I was so scared to sleep next to something so tiny.”
But Olivya grew strong and healthy, and three years ago Sosa moved her family back to her hometown of Bethel.
“I knew I wanted her to go to the Yupik Immersion School here,” says Sosa. “They call it Ayaprun Elitnaurvik. It is a kindergarten through sixth grade school. The teacher and staff all speak Yupik fluently. English is not allowed unless it is being whispered.”
At first, Olivya had a hard time at school because she only knew English.
“Her teacher would tell me she would sit there and cry because she couldn’t understand her teachers at all,” recounts Sosa.
But Olivya loved Yupik dancing, and six months later, Sosa says she now teaches her family Yup’ik dance and language at home.
“She loves to yuraq (dance),” explains Sosa. “Along with dancing with her school, she also dances in an Eskimo group called the Bethel Traditional Dancers. They practice every night now until the big Cam-i Festival in mid-March where dance groups from all over Alaska come to dance.”
Sosa said she herself danced with her school until sixth grade when she began homeschooling.
“I do remember my favorite dance and I taught it to Olivya,” she said. “As of this morning she was trying to master that dance: ‘Cauyaqa Nauwa (Where Are the Drums?)’.”
Sosa said she was surprised at the quick and joyful response the video got after she posted it. She said even though Olivya is too little to really understand what’s happening, she liked hearing that people enjoyed her dancing.
“Seeing everyone reactions and comments to my daughter has really encouraged her to dance more,” said Sosa. “She doesn’t understand that her video went viral on the internet. She is six and just loves to entertain. Before I posted this video, Olivya used to tell me and my parents one day she’d go to New York. I believe her. She is an amazing little girl and I am blessed to be her mother.”
More videos of children, adults, and elders dancing can be found on the Yupik Eskimo Dance Facebook page, which is open for anyone to join.
For more information about the upcoming Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel, Alaska, March 16–18, 2018, please visit camai.org.