Bluegrass Christmas in the Villages

This inspriring story was written by the Rev. Belle Mickelson. She is an Episcopal minister who runs Dancing with the Spirit, an organization which teaches bluegrass to youngsters in the native villages of Alaska and Canada – and which could use the support of the wider bluegrass community.

Belle and Mike Mickelson with a group from Dancing With The SpiritYesterday was the big Christmas Concert and dinner at Arctic Village School. 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 Athabaskan Indian fiddling tradition of rhythmic foot stomping and dancing. The kids loved it and many stayed after school to play just one more tune!

Arctic Village is the fourth stop in our Christmas tour that began Dec. 1 in Beaver and then continued on to Stevens Village and Tanana—little places along the Yukon River. We flew by small plane—all bundled up just in case we had to make an emergency landing. We usually camped out in schools—that sometimes had the only running water in the village.

The kids were so excited to see us come! It was so great to see their smiles as they picked up guitars or a banjo‚Ķ I loved what one little 7 year-old girl in Beaver told me as I played the fiddle for her. “It talks,” she said, “it talks!” And the kids in Stevens giggled and laughed so much as they tried square dancing by themselves. In Tanana, Pete Peters traveled with us and brought Native drumming and language for a couple songs.

I’m still amazed at how fast all the kids learn. We use color-coding and simple notation. It was our third week-long visit to Arctic Village this year‚Äîand junior high and high school fiddle students can easily play over twenty songs including Amazing Grace, I’ll Fly Away, Liza Jane, Will the Circle be Unbroken, and The best part is the joy they feel‚Äîand 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‚Äîbut hopefully that will happen soon!

This trip is funded by school districts and Dancing with the Spirit—a new bluegrass music program for kids in Native villages in Alaska and Canada. Thru camps and school programs, young people take classes in fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bass—plus sing, dance, and form bands. Music can bring success and hope to villages struggling with alcoholism, drugs, and suicide.

The Rev. Trimble Gilbert from Arctic Village says, “In the old days we fought tribal wars with arrowheads. It’s a different type of war now‚Äîagainst drugs and alcohol. I believe we can win with music.”

Young Alaskan natives learning to pick and sing bluegrassDancing with the Spirit is a program to connect youth and elders through music. Music builds confidence, self-esteem, and the closeness of a family. Students can spend hours and hours playing guitars and fiddles, singing and dancing. The Dancing with the Spirit program hopes to get instruments in the hands of young Natives, teach them to play, train village musicians as teachers, write a music curriculum, and package the program so that it can be easily duplicated nationally and internationally.

What a great Christmas present! Give the gift of music! Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to:

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

We’re doing an east coast fundraiser for Dancing with the Spirit with a Bearfoot Concert on Tuesday, Jan. 8th at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, New York at 7 pm with a silent auction with salmon hors d’oeuves starting at 6 pm. If you would like more information about the concert, please call the Rev. Duncan Burns at 845-338-3731 or contact me by email.

Bearfoot BluegrassBearfoot is a young Alaskan band from the bluegrass tradition that features harmony singing, twin fiddles, exquisite mandolin and guitar solos and solid bass. Bearfoot started when they were 14-17 years old as Cordova Alaska 4H Music Camp counselors. They won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival a year later in 2001. They’ve gone on to travel the United States, Canada, and Ireland–and have done 65 Bluegrass Camps for Kids along with their concerts. They have 3 CD’s to their credit and a website

My son Mike, who’s with me on this Christmas bluegrass tour, plays guitar and twin mandolin for Bearfoot. He’s working on banjo and fiddle, too‚Äîand he’s great at repairing instruments. Sometimes he uses duct tape and heavy books in lieu of clamps! Today, we fly back to Fairbanks‚Äîand on to Allakaket for Christmas Sunday.

I’m a newly ordained Episcopal priest‚Äîso we’ll do church there and then a guitar and fiddle workshop and a dance later.

Then Monday morning, we fly on to Hughes for another guitar and fiddle workshop, a Christmas eve service, and a dance. We’re taking a guitar and a fiddle as a Christmas present for each community. We’ll be in Hughes for Christmas Day‚Äîand then back to our home in Cordova, Alaska on the 26th or 27th.

Merry Christmas one and all!!