Athabascan Stickdance

Athabascan Stickdance

Type of Holiday: Religious (Athabascan)
Date of Observation: One week in March
Where Celebrated: Kaltag and Nulato, Alaska
Symbols and Customs: Gifts, Potlatch, Ritual Songs, Spruce Pole


The Athasbacan Stickdance is part of Native American religious tradition. The history of this and other Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The Athabascan Indians take their name from Lake Athabasca in Canada, which in turn takes its name from the Cree word for the way plants or grasses grow in the shallow end of a lake. The name of the tribe is spelled many different ways (Athapascan, Athapaskan, Athabaskan, etc.), but "Athabascan" is now the preferred spelling.

The stickdance-named after the SPRUCE POLE that is its central symbolic object-is a weeklong ceremony held by Alaska's Athabascan Indians to mourn for the male members of the tribe who have died and to provide comfort and support for their grieving families. Observed nowadays only at Nulato, in western central Alaska on the banks of the Yukon River, and at Kaltag, about thirtyfive miles further downriver, the stickdance rotates each March between Nulato and Kaltag.

The widows of the deceased, with the help of other family members, sponsor the ceremony, which takes place in the tribe's community center. Starting on a Monday, people gather there for four consecutive evenings to participate in the ceremonial feast known as a POTLATCH or to share food in a less formal way. There is singing and dancing, and people get together in small groups to talk about their memories of the deceased. The stickdance itself takes place on Friday night, and because it can honor a number of male tribal members simultaneously, there may be hundreds of people in attendance.

The men put up a tall spruce pole in the center of the hall, while the family and friends of the deceased decorate it with their gifts. Then everyone joins in a slow, shuffling dance around the pole, chanting RITUAL SONGS repeatedly all night long and meditating privately about those who have died.

On Saturday morning the pole is taken down and carried past each house in the village before being broken up and thrown into the Yukon River, which is usually still frozen at this time of year but which will eventually melt and carry the pole's shattered remains to the sea. The rest of the weekend is devoted to rituals designed to help the living come to terms with their loss. Men who have been specially selected to represent the dead dress up in their clothes and bid a final farewell to their family and friends. Gifts that have been made or purchased by the family are distributed to every person attending the stickdance (see GIFTS ) to show appreciation for their friendship and support, and there is more feasting on traditional foods.

Although a few years may elapse between the loss of a loved one and the stickdance that honors his memory, the Athabascan approach to dealing with grief and loss seems to be particularly effective. Surviving family members say that the opportunity to focus on their memories of the dead and to receive the support of the entire community is a valuable one, and that the stickdance does indeed make it easier for them to let go.



The sheer number of gifts that are distributed during the week of the stickdance is one of the primary reasons why it can take a family years to prepare for this event. Every single person who shows up receives a gift, and that means buying-or in most cases, making-hundreds of individual gifts. Merely gathering the furs, wood, and other materials needed to make the gifts can take the typical Athabascan family two or more years, which is why this event isn't held on an annual basis. It makes more sense to wait until several families are fully prepared and then hold a single stickdance for all of them.


The potlatch is perhaps the most important surviving religious practice among the Native people in Alaska and along the north Pacific coast in the aftermath of European arrival. This feast and gift-giving event is central to many important Athabascan ceremonies, including funeral rites. Hence it takes place not only on an annual basis but also throughout the year, at funerals and memorials. The first potlatch is held soon after death when the body of the deceased is burned, and then another potlatch is held during the stickdance or memorial service. Dishes served at the feast may include salmon, beaver, rabbit, and moose.

Ritual Songs

The ritual songs that are sung during a stickdance have been handed down from generation to generation by the Athabascan people. There were originally fourteen songs, but one has already been forgotten, and only the elder members of the tribe know all the words to the remaining thirteen. The stickdance is the only occasion at which these songs, known as hi'o keleka, may be chanted.

Spruce Pole

The pole from which the stickdance takes its name is a spruce tree from which all the branches have been stripped. Ribbons are wrapped around the rough wood, and furs and other gifts are often hung from the pole, making it resemble a Christmas tree. As the object around which the circular dance takes place, the spruce pole may be seen as a symbol for the dead and a focal point for the thoughts and memories of surviving friends and family members.


Hirschfelder, Arlene B., and Paulette Fairbanks Molin. "Stick Dance." Encyclopedia of Native American Religions. Updated ed. New York: Facts on File, 2000.


"Athabascans of Interior Alaska," Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009