Dance diva Maryann Sundown dies at 93

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Arnaucuaq, whose English name was Maryann Sundown, the Yup’ik Dance Diva of Scammon Bay, died in her home Wednesday night. She was 93. Beloved by fans of Native dance throughout Alaska, she continued to delight audiences despite her age, performing at the big Cama-i dance festival in Bethel this spring.

A stooped, wiry, wrinkled Yup’ik great-great-grandmother with a Buster Keaton-like deaDeutsche Presse-Agenturn face, lively eyes and an infectious laugh, Sundown was probably the most popular dancer in Alaska in any genre. She was particularly known for comedy, often poking fun at popular culture. The “Bruce Lee Dance” included imitation kickboxing and kung-fu. The “Cigarette Dance” mocked Hollywood stars savoring their smokes. Her version of “The Macarena” invariably brought down the house.

The widespread public image conveyed by Sundown’s dancing was an accurate reflection of her personality, said her son Harley Sundown. “It spoke to her ability to connect with people and make people feel special. I’ve been reading an article about ‘bucket-fillers,’ people who fill others with joy and confidence. She was a bucket-filler of people.”

Sundown often performed with her teasing cousin, Agnes Aguchak, who died in 2009.

The scholarly book “Yupiit Yuraryarait: Yup’ik Ways of Dancing” (University of Alaska Press), by Theresa John and Ann Fienup-Riordan, notes Sundown’s “masterful performances” and describes her performing the “Mosquito Dance” with Aguchak, which depicts berry-pickers swarmed by bugs. “Both women slapping and swatting with straight faces while the audience howls.”

Though a standing ovation is nearly unheard of at Yup’ik dance events, the crowd of 1,000 or more who this year packed the Bethel High School gym to catch the pair regularly rose to their feet, shouting and whistling as they applauded.”

Sundown was born Oct. 2, 1918, to Apakussutaq and Maangiar Qassayuli at Ing’erriak, a seasonal camp on the other side of Scammon Bay from where the village now stands. She married Canaar Teddy Sundown, a noted tradition-bearer and dance composer in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. He passed away in 1996.

The family told the Daily News that she died from pneumonia and old age. She seemed to know that this would be her final illness, said her daughter Loddie Jones. “She prepared us for her leaving by telling us we had to be strong, we had to be good.”

Though a bona fide celebrity in rural Alaska, Sundown’s main concern was always for her family, said Jones. “Family was No. 1 for her.”

That was obvious in her concluding dance with Bethel’s Upallret Dancers at Quyana Night during the 2006 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage. It was a tribute to her grandchildren, many of whom were dancing onstage with her. It concluded with her sparkling, trademark laugh and an expression of wondering love as she looked at them.

In private life, she was an industrious homemaker, adept at skinning a seal, stitching a kuspuk or ceremonial dance headpiece from fur, or whipping up a bowl of akutaq — then relaxing in front of the television set.

“She saw changes from a very traditional lifestyle to a world of technology, right down to her remote control,” said Jones. “She loved what she called her ‘lemote.’ “

She was also known to family and friends as Aanang.

Services and burial will take place in Scammon Bay on Saturday. The weather forecast is said to be good, an important factor since many mourners will need to fly into the roadless village in small planes.

She was preceded in death by her husband and three children, Veronica, Martin and another daughter also named Veronica.

She is survived by 10 children: Zita Haddon and husband Leonard; Theresa Charlie and husband Francis; Modesta Prince and husband Martin; Alice Rivers, widow of the late Billy Rivers; Loddie Jones and husband John; Leota Homer and husband Odell; Agnes Naneng and her husband Myron; Dorothy Alder and husband John; Susan Utteryuk and husband Peter; and Harley Sundown and wife, Joan.

A list provided by the family included three adopted grandchildren, George Smith, Robert Sundown and Joann Sundown, and three “special adopted children,” Linda Curda, Baby Boy Mike Hoffman and Sheila Wallace.

The list also noted 60 grandchildren, 161 great-grandchildren and 19 great-great-grandchildren.

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