It was 2012, my senior year of college, and I was there as part of the north2north program which facilitates exchanges between a few dozen northern universities, among them my home institution of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and host institution, Syktyvkar State University.
The question struck for two reasons: first, that it was so simple; and second, that I didn't have an answer. Of course I could have taught them the hyper-sexualized grind that is most common for “my people”, but it didn't quite seem appropriate in a room filled with ethnic Udmurts ages 5 to 85; nor did it fit the music, played with the balalaika and various tamborine-like percussion instruments.
But who were “my people” as they had asked? It was an easy question for my hosts toanswer: they were Udmurts, a people with a distinct language, cuisine, music and clothing. They were known throughout Russia for their clothing, decorated with old monies that rattled on their chests as they danced. But who was I? I am American, of course, but that isn't very specific. I am ethnically German and Norwegian, but I certainly didn't have any dance moves from my great-great grandparents who immigrated from the Old Country.
Athletics was perhaps the reason that I was in the community hall for their village celebration. As a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) All-American skier, I had specifically chosen a university in Russia known for its ski conditions, and continued to train full time throughout my studies abroad. Despite my reservations about taking a semester off of NCAA competition, I had the idealistic notion that sport, above all, is a network to connect people who shared only their desire to work hard towards a certain goal. And indeed, through skiing I had met my good friend Kolya, who had invited me to his Udmurt village for this celebration.
The celebration also fit into my undergraduate degree: Russian Studies. Though the Udmurt people all still speak their native language, they all learn fluent Russian in school, if not before. As a student of the Russian language, it was my only way to communicate with my hosts and every day was an intense, immersive lesson in the complicated tongue.
More important than how I got there was where it led me. I came back to UAF, determined to find out who my people were, whatever that means. I got involved with a university club called K'enaanee Kkaazoot, which sent skiers to native Athabaskan villages in rural Alaska. I was soon fortunate enough to travel to three Gwich’in villages and get to know the native people of my home state, who I hardly even considered before then. Since I started with K'enaanee Kkaazoot, I also became involved with a similar statewide organization called NANANordic, which also serves Inupiaq and Yupik Eskimo villages with ski coaches. I have volunteered two weeks of my time for the past three years with this program, and have traveled and worked in nine off-the-road system villages, as well as doing local Anchorage outreach to underserved school children.
More than just volunteering, I hope that I can do my small part in helping preserve the traditions of the indigenous people of my home state, so that they don't forget how to dance.
Originally published in the UArctic Shared Voices Magazine 2018.