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Family and Community

Home  >  Family and Community  >  Family Collections  >  Kerr
Music for the Potlatch
By Jim Kerr

About once a year our family plays fiddle music for the Cook Inlet Region Corporation's (CIRI) Potlatch, an annual gathering of Alaskan Natives. It is one of the things I do to stay in touch with my Native heritage.

CIRI is a diverse group of Natives who come from many places, including many who lived in Anchorage in 1971, the year they had the choice of signing up with the Native corporation for the region they currently lived in or the one that they were born in. For example, my mother was born in Anvik, Alaska, and could have chosen to enroll with the Doyon Corporation, but chose instead to enroll with CIRI because she had been living in Anchorage for about 30 years at that time.

I, on the other hand, had no choice. I was born in Anchorage, with one-quarter Deg Hit'an Athabascan blood, so my folks signed me up with CIRI. I am a very urban person -- not exactly what you might think of when expecting to see an Alaskan Native. Nonetheless, I am proud of my Deg Hit'an heritage, and I am trying to learn the Athabascan language of the Deg Hit'an. I am also creating a Web site about it.

Jim Kerr
Since CIRI has such a diverse Native background, its potlatches often include Native entertainment from all over Alaska. Yupik dancers, Inuit dancers, Athabascan fiddle bands and a lot more -- even modern entertainment.

Fiddle music has found its way to the Athabascans from the Scottish and French fur traders of the 19th and 20th centuries as they traveled through Canada and the middle of Alaska. Athabascan fiddle dances have become very popular lately, especially in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Even though our family band doesn't qualify as an Athabascan fiddle band, the Potlatch participants relate to our music and we get great response when we play.

Although I'd like to say that fiddle music is deeply engrained in my ancestral roots, I don't have any evidence of that. I guess I just stumbled across it and fell in love with it and am lucky enough to play guitar for some great fiddlers, including my daughter, Amanda Kerr, and my friend Shonti Elder. I also get to play music with Amanda's mom, who is also my wife, Denise Martin. Denise plays fiddle music on both the hammered dulcimer and the English concertina. She does this extremely well.

At the Potlatch, our family band gets to play during the mealtime. We show up and the elders are eating first. We aimlessly wander around the tables chatting with relatives and friends until it is our turn to eat lunch. Wow, lunch is great. The CIRI board of directors personally served up halibut, moose, Indian ice cream, berries and smoked king salmon. We haven't finished eating when we are asked to play some tunes. The act before us is a lady named Cea who is singing and playing guitar. I ask her to sing one more while we finish up. She is quite content to oblige us with a great song.

With happy, full bellies we go up and start playing a hoedown. I am so proud of Amanda's fiddling. I am honored to play music with her. As we play I remember doing the same gig a couple of years back. It was one of the first ones that Amanda did with us. Like this one we had three gigs on the same day. Saturdays are like that sometimes. Back then we played in the hall and folks didn't make such a fuss over us. We spent a lot of time conversing with people between tunes. This time it is different -- since we are on stage playing into microphones, and there are many people listening to us, despite all the eating and chatting.

Next we play a favorite of ours -- Billy in the Low Ground. Amanda leads it as a fast hoedown. It is totally unrehearsed music, yet we manage to play it really well and we end together. Everybody claps. They were eating and chatting and listening to us all at once. That is the great thing about instrumental music. You don't have to assault your audience, you can do your thing and they are free to enjoy you and appreciate you or they can go on about their business. If you are well received with lots of applause you know you performed well.

After a few more tunes the Master of Ceremonies draws names for raffle prizes and introduces us to the audience. Denise and I glow with pride as the audience applauds, whistles and cheers the fact that Amanda has won the Alaska State Fair Fiddle Contest for a second year in a row. The M.C. is very impressed with Amanda and attributes her great playing to Amanda's Athabascan blood.

One of the main acts that follows us is an Athabascan fiddle band. They play in the gymnasium, as one of the featured acts. Maybe some day our family band will be so honored as to play with them there. Nevertheless, it is a great day, and we head out to our next gig.

-- spring 2002

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