Alaska Native dance group brings cultural recognition to commencement

For over 10 years, it has been a tradition for Lepquinm Gumilgit Gagoadim (LGG) to perform a welcome dance at UAA’s fall and spring commencement ceremonies. LGG, meaning “our own dance in our hearts,” is a Tsimshian dance group that strives to keep their language and culture alive.

LGG was founded back in 2005 by Marcella Wahts’muu and Theodora Bayou, both of Tsimshian descent. In 1987, Bayou started an adult dance group in her hometown of Metlakatla in Southeast Alaska, and wanted to continue it after moving to Anchorage. Over the years, LGG has performed across the state of Alaska, as well as in Washington D.C.

According to Bayou, there is a lot more to LGG than just dancing.

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Members of the Lepquinm Gumilgit Gagoadim, or “Our own dance in our hearts” dance group perform at the UAA commencement ceremony every fall and spring. Photo credit: Marcella Wahts’muu

“Being a part of this dance group keeps my language and culture alive. We not only do song and dance, but Sm’algyax language classes to benefit the younger generation,” Bayou said. “I feel the strength of our younger generation carrying on the traditions and language. Our culture as well as language will go on to future generations as our ancestors have done.”

Although LGG is a Tsimshian dance group, members come from a wide variety of Alaska Native backgrounds, including Tlingit, Haida and Athabascan. Almost all of its members have some sort of connection to Metlakatla and British Columbia, much like Bayou and Wahts’muu.

For Wahts’muu, the group brings her back to her roots.

“LGG connects me with home,” Wahts’muu said. “Anchorage is very far from Metlakatla and with LGG meeting regularly, I get to connect with people from home and not be homesick. I get to be myself.”

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Soon after their formation, the group was recommended to UAA by the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program in 2006, and has been performing at nearly every one of the university’s graduations since.

UAA has been a strong support of LGG, and many group members are also graduates from UAA. Karla Booth, member since 2005, is an alumnus of the university. Booth worked as the Alaska Native and Rural Outreach Program coordinator for 13 years in the Department of Residence Life.

Booth finds that being a part of LGG has brought her closer to her heritage as well as the Anchorage community.

“While living in the city, it is easy for us to feel disconnected to our traditions. It’s a privilege to be able to come together with other like minded people each week to celebrate the heritage that we love,” Booth said.

Booth feels that LGG’s performances teach the audience an important lesson: love.

“Witnessing our songs, dances, drumming and language can help people heal in their lives because this form of entertainment comes from a place of love. There’s love of the culture, the language, a love of being connected to the past and knowing the roots of our identity,” Booth said. “Experiencing the sounds of our voices and drums can connect with people at different levels because they can feel it resonate in their mind and body. It can give them strength, clarity, courage and motivation.”

Like Booth, performing at commencement and seeing the Tsimshian culture alive brings joy to Bayou as well.

“When we perform for the UAA graduations here in Anchorage, I feel the pride of each young graduate and that Alaska has traditional groups of Native Alaskans to share and make each graduate proud that they are from this beautiful state,” Bayou said.

Lepquinm Gumilgit Gagoadim will perform at the UAA spring commencement ceremony on May 6.