Traditional Yup’ik dance was a form of prayer, a ritualistic plea to the spirit world in the land that would one day be known as Alaska. In that long-ago age, the shaman donned masks representing animal spirits and led the tribe in singing, dancing and drumming to petition the spirits for specific needs. In the late 1800s Christian missionaries including Jesuit priests banned the Natives’ ancient ceremonial dancing, condemning it as evil pagan idolatry.
More than a century later, a Cup’ik Eskimo family in Anchorage was celebrating the Nativity of Christ when they were inspired to form a traditional dance troupe to share their culture and impart their heritage and traditions to younger generations. The elders approved and christened the group “Cupiit Yuratet,” meaning simply “The Cup’ik Dancers.” Cup’ik refers to Yup’ik Eskimos from Chevak, a village in Southwest Alaska with its own distinct dialect.
Cupiit Yuratet dancer Daniel Daney, 22, is a devout Catholic convert. Though traditional dancing now serves as a form of storytelling, to Daney it is also still a form of prayer.
“It is a spiritual activity for me because we’re coming together as a family and imitating the City of God,” Daney told the Catholic Anchor.
Before every performance Daney prays to Saint Therese of Lisieux and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Saint Therese is the patron saint of Alaska, and the Blessed Mother is the mother of Jesus Christ. Daney beams as he talks about her, referring to her affectionately by various maternal titles as though they were personal terms of endearment.
“The Mother of Jesus is central — she always leads to Jesus. The Virgin Mother is in my thoughts and prayers throughout the day. I don’t think anyone can comprehend how much the Mother Mary wants us to be with Jesus.”
He smiles sheepishly. “I’m always talking about Our Lady. I can’t help it.”
Daney credits Our Lady for drawing him into the Catholic faith. Growing up with an inactive Catholic mother and non-Catholic father, Daney was disinterested in religion. He attended Holy Rosary Academy not for its faith-based education but for its small classes and college prep courses.
As he prayed during the school’s weekly adoration period on the first Friday of March 2008, Daney recalled, “I felt the suffering for my sins from my entire life, and I felt that I should pray to God. I prayed, and I had this knowledge to pray to the Mother of Jesus for penance and for forgiveness in baptism.”
“It was very hard to process how incredible the Mother of Jesus is,” Daney added. “I remember that [moment of conversion] every single day.”
About a year after his epiphany in adoration, Daney was baptized Catholic, at age 16. His mother renewed her Catholic faith, and before long his dad converted. At some point Daney said he overcame the notion that being Catholic somehow diminishes being an Alaska Native.
“They’re two different things, but they are from the same God. We have the same values. We praise God. We love one another,” he said. “We are able to become holy in so many different ways.”
As his Cup’ik ancestors appealed to spirits for survival needs, he said modern Catholic Natives pray to the Holy Family to continue providing for them.
“It’s very important to the villages — the importance of the Holy Family, the importance of their advocacy to our Native peoples, how much we need their help — and we have such a great love for them,” he said. “Though we do have Alaska Native traditions, the Mother of Jesus fulfills what the Native Alaskans want from God, and then some. She helps the poor and is open to helping everyone. She always exceeds what we ask.”
Alaska Native culture and Catholic faith share several core values, Daney pointed out, such as a profound appreciation for God’s creation, love for family and neighbors and respect for elders. He visits his grandparents at least weekly and strives to help them out as needed.
“I make sure I fish for them, and invite them to big family get-togethers, and pray for them,” he said. “My culture teaches high respect for elders and respect for their knowledge and what they have to offer everybody. It is very important to my family and especially my elders that they pass these (dances and stories) on before they die.”
The Native songs regale tales of everything from seal hunting to family events. The group performs around Alaska and beyond, from Seattle Children’s Hospital to potlatches or powwows as far as Bolivia. Daney grew up in Anchorage and doesn’t speak Cup’ik, but he knows the stories behind the songs.
Throughout his childhood the family gathered once a week to practice the dances. When he turned 8, in keeping with Cup’ik tradition, the family initiated him as a dancer with an honorary feast and the designation of his own personal song. His song is about his grandfather making pancakes for a large family gathering.
As he learns about and embraces his heritage through his family elders, Daney likewise emulates several veteran priests while he is discerning a vocation to priesthood. He wears a silver ring with a gold cross given to him by Dominican priest Father Anthony Patalano, the pastor at Daney’s parish, Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage. The ring, which originally belonged to Father Patalano, is inscribed inside with his name, the date he took his solemn vows, and a Latin quote meaning “unto death.”
During this discernment phase, Daney is praying and contemplating in adoration and attending daily Mass. An auxiliary member of The Legion of Mary, he says the Legion prayers and prays the rosary every day.
“It is in our theology, but something I learned in my prayer life is that no one other than her Son can explain better than Our Lady how to live a holy life,” he said. “Heaven is so happy when we make the slightest advancement in holiness, and the Virgin Mother will never turn away anyone’s prayer.”
As he pursues higher education and prays for discernment, Daney is planning to visit some seminaries, starting with the Capuchin Franciscans order. Meanwhile he’ll keep on dancing, in tune to his faith and in step with the best of his forefathers.