Fur Traders and Sears Introduced Them to Strings : Indians Fiddle While Nome Freezes

Associated Press

In the chill and darkness of Alaska winter, Indians along the Yukon River gather to keep alive a fiddling tradition that owes as much to mail order catalogues as to fur traders.

Hudson Bay fur trappers introduced violin music to the Athapascans of interior Alaska in the 1820s. With the music came dancing: light-hearted reels, jigs, square dances and waltzes with roots in Scotland, French Canada and the Orkney Islands.

But it was Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward that a century later supplied phonographs, records and fiddles in exchange for furs. And that brought country and Western music by steamboat to the Yukon.

Dancing in Villages

"I was raised in the wilderness, where my dad used to hunt and fish," said Bill Stevens, 53, from Ft. Yukon. "We'd come into the villages for dancing, which was always done to fiddles and guitars.

"Pretty soon, I asked my mother to get me a fiddle, and she ordered one from a Sears, Roebuck catalogue.

"I was about 15 then, and I learned to play it by ear. Where I was, there was no formal training. No teachers. It wasn't until years later in California that I learned I was holding it wrong."

Stevens has since won scores of trophies in fiddling contests. He has cut an album and traded his Sears violin for a blue plastic model, an electric instrument similar to the kind used by many professionals.

That is a sizable improvement over some of the instruments once carried in dog sleds to potlatches, festivals and dances.

Lynx Gut for Strings

The people along the river found it easier to pack a violin or guitar for their travels than anything else, Stevens said. And they were easier to repair. Lynx or marten gut was used when violin strings broke. Rabbit-snare wire was wrapped around battered instruments to hold them together.

Stevens talked with a reporter while Indian musicians representing more than 25 villages in Alaska and Canada played in groups of two or three on the stage of the local Eagles Hall.

No penguin-garbed musicians on this stage. The majority wore baseball caps, plaid flannel shirts, suspenders and hunting boots.

Each played in 15- to 30-minute sets, turning out a blend of foot-stompin', hand-clappin' music that had scores of couples whirling and wheeling on the dance floor.

Many of the men and women wore beaded, ankle-length moccasin dancing shoes worth hundreds of dollars. Others wore foam-insulated boots and jogging shoes as they rounded the floor in time to the music.

Indian Jam Sessions

The occasion was the Institute of Alaska Native Arts Fourth Annual Fiddling Festival, three days of jam sessions, workshops and dancing in late November.

It is the waiting time between fishing and trapping for these performers, most of whom live in roadless villages near the Yukon River north of Fairbanks.

But one had returned home from Maine and two others showed up from Tuktoyaktuk, a Canadian village on a peninsula in the Beaufort Sea.

"What you see out there on the dance floor, basically, are people who like simple tunes," said Gordon Olin, an Athapascan who had grown up in the Kokrines, an area of low hills, trees, hunting and fishing camps near the Yukon River.

"The majority of the people don't like to hear music they don't understand," said Olin, who now lives in Millinocket, Me. "And they want to be able to dance to it."

Joe Wilson is a blues-and-gospel musician who has attended the festival for two of its four years. The first time, he came as an observer for the National Endowment for the Arts, which had supplied seed money to help get the festival going.

The second time, he came as a consultant, paid by the festival to document the music and help maintain the tradition.

Music Believed Scottish

"Somebody told me that 30% of the music was Scottish, some from Orkney, some this, some that," Wilson said in a telephone interview from Elkhorn, Miss., where he was performing with his group.

"Actually, a large part of it was learned from old Sears, Roebuck 78s. There was a time when you could send skins down to Chicago and they'd send back crank-type phonographs and records."

You can get an idea of what part of the river the musicians are from by watching their feet, Wilson said.

"Some of them do a foot clog. That's where a fiddler beats accompaniment with both feet. All the old French voyageurs played that way.

Music Changes

"But there's a difference in the music as you go down river," he said. "There's more blues and country, more of a modern influence. And you see them keeping time with one foot.

"English is really the only thing they have in common."

Wilson, who grew up in the hills and hollows of East Tennessee, said the Athapascans are developing a new kind of music from the strains passed down over the decades.

"It sparkles," he said. "It has a wild, wonderful quality to it.

"These people are hunters. I think they play music sometimes the way they hunt. I hear an untamed quality about them. This horse doesn't have a bridle on it. There's discipline there, but the boundaries are different."

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