Bridging tradition and technology in Inuit music

Project Spotlight: James Dommek Jr., Byron Nicholai, Julia Ogina and Tiffany Ayalik discuss the past, present and future of Inuit music.

Dän däw Kwenjè Indigenous Sovereignty Jų̃ ts’e’į uts’an kwäts’eden-ji ch’i cha jų̃ kwa’ch’e Nänkai akändür dän äłek’e ädesedèyè
Black and white headshots of four artists

Moderated by Tiffany Ayalik, a Juno-Award winning performer, actor, film producer and composer from the Kugluktuk region, this event brought together artists, James Dommek Jr., Byron Nicholai and Julia Ogina, to talk about the past, present and future of Inuit music.

Black and white headshots of four artists
Conversations: Music Within Inuit Cultures and Languages artist panel featuring, from left to right: Tiffany Ayalik, James Dommek Jr., Byron Nicholai and Julia Ogina. COURTESY THE ARTISTS.

At the heart of the conversation, they discuss the significance of cultural reclamation, innovation and adaptation in blending tradition and new technology.The third in a six-part series of live conversations, this virtual gathering Conversations: Music within Inuit Cultures and Languages was hosted by the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center and Inuit Art Foundation on September 15, 2021.

Dommek Jr., an Alaska Native musician and audio producer, talks about building from traditions to create new work. “I think our people are highly innovative,” he says. “We take what we have available and we make it work for what we need. I think that our ancestors would want us to learn all the old songs as much as we can, but they would also want us to write [and] to try to add to the cannon. At one point [their songs] were new and exciting and fresh. I think they would want us to keep it going.”

Nicholai, a Yup’ik singer, dancer and musician from Toksook Bay, Alaska, elaborates on storytelling and knowledge transmission through language and song. New technologies, he suggests, can inspire engagement and pass on language: “I try to create songs to keep the youth of today engaged in listening to traditional language. It’s important to keep the traditions but as James said, we also have to adapt. A question that I asked myself when I started was, “Would our ancestors do this, if they had the same equipment?” I think they would want us to keep the culture alive—the traditional life—but I think they would also want us to adapt.”

Ogina, a songwriter and language expert based in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), NU, shares her creative process and touches on the transformation that occurs within language itself. “I begin with what I know and build on it,” she explains. “Traditionally, people who loved to sing would create their own song, [often creating them] as young as possible. And I was asked a few times by Elders if I had created my own song. I did not know how to create the song, I did not know or understand the terms used in traditional songs. . . As I strived to learn, that’s when I started to understand how very specific these characteristic terms are. Learning to create songs was much deeper for me. I’m creating terms [now], the way I think terms were created. You need to be experimental with your language, be innovative with your language, and be adaptive. We have to evolve. Our language was always evolving…”

Each of these artists demonstrate the adaptability and creativity of Inuit art and culture, and various approaches to keeping traditions alive in a way that, as Ayalik describes, “is accessible and exciting for the next generation.”

“I think our ancestors would want us to keep the culture alive — the traditional life — but I think they would also want us to adapt.”
Byron Nicholai, Yup'ik singer, dancer and musician from Toksook Bay, Alaska.

The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center conducts research on northern lands, environments, cultures, and people using Smithsonian collections and field studies to learn about the history and contemporary peoples of the circumpolar region. The Center works closely with indigenous groups, universities, organizations and government agencies to promote the welfare of northern people and to educate the public about the history, arts, and languages of the North. Its scholars publish papers, monographs, and catalogs and prepare exhibitions and educational programs.

The video was originally published by the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center on October 15, 2021. Courtesy the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center and the Inuit Art Foundation.