Despite the divisions of the modern world – between cultures and borders, between humans and the environment – traditional Chukchi singer and dancer Atsynga Olga Letykai has always known a way to find unity. As her people have done for centuries in the northeastern corner of Siberia on the Chukchi Peninsula, Letykai loses herself in the ritual performances that join humans with nature. “Through the ritual dances, we show this connection of people to nature and the cosmos.” While the men ventured out to hunt, the women, children and elders would gather together to support them with their songs and dances, “so that nature would bless them, so that they would not be hungry, so their soul would be warm.” As an international performer, Letykai has found that these songs also serve to draw attention to indigenous cultures and the problems they face. She is proud to be passing the rituals into the next generation; her 22-year-old daughter Keungeut Alissa Csonka often performs with her.
Born in 1972, song and dance has been integral to Letykai’s life from an early age. She grew up among relatives in Enmelen on the Chukchi Peninsula, spending her first two years with her childless aunt and uncle as is customary in the Chukchi culture. “My aunt was always singing songs; she taught me,” Letykai said. Letykai’s parents lived in Enmelen on the coast, part of a long line of hunters of sea animals. But she also spent several months of the year with her grandparents on the tundra. “They came for me with their dog sleds, and took me for a few months.” Her grandmother Rovtot, a powerful shaman, instilled in her a deep respect of ancient tradition.
Though Letykai had expected to spend her whole life in her Siberian tundra, reality in fact turned out quite differently. Attending Gertzena University in St. Petersburg in 1989 was a major turning point. The driving force behind her move was her choice of study: People of the Extreme North. Gertzena University was the only place where she could officially study the Chukchi language. The loss of the Chukchi language poses a serious threat to the preservation of her culture. Harsh Soviet policies during her parents’ generation forbid students from speaking their native tongue. As a result, many families today speak Russian in their homes, learning Chukchi only in school, where it is now recognized as valuable. During university, she participated in many ensembles, showcasing her cultural heritage. She also began working with many organizations dedicated to the rights of minority cultures, such as the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia, and Far East. She participated in a group dedicated to creating a declaration of rights for indigenous people for the UN.
Letykai’s career began in Geneva in 1996 at her first solo performance. Since then, she has performed at numerous international festivals and now resides near Neuchatel, Switzerland. Her daughter Alissa balances pursuing an engineering degree with her passion for performing with her mother. Though raised mainly in Greenland and Switzerland, Alissa has her mother to thank for her strong foundation in her native culture. Letykai has made it a priority for Alissa to take extensive vacations back to the Chukchi Peninsula to be among relatives, immersing herself in the language, the food, and the celebrations. Alissa is often asked whether it is difficult growing up among different cultures. Her response is simple: it’s the only life she knows.
Songs of the Earth
Everything about Letykai’s singing and dancing conveys a deep bond with and respect for nature. The sounds she produces imitate the wind, the water, and the animals. Each movement has a specific meaning. Her traditional costume is made from reindeer skins. In addition, she plays traditional Chukchi drum and the mouth harp to accompany her songs. Letykai is a master of throat singing, one of the oldest forms of singing. Using a complex technique of circular breathing, and manipulating the larynx, mouth, and tongue, Letykai can create more than one melody simultaneously. “It’s as if two people are singing and talking to each other, like a person with nature,” she said. Songs and dances accompany every major ritual, tying antiquity to the present. Her favorite celebration is the three-day ceremony in August honoring the deer. A striking legend weaves the story of the intimate connection her people have with the reindeer: “Long ago, when the world was hot, humans had no trouble fending for themselves, but when the cold arrived, they struggled. A deer presented itself to a man, offering its body as warmth and food. When the man refused, the deer insisted, and so the man agreed to save his race. The deer taught the man a series of sacred rituals that must be performed before taking the deer’s life. The man diligently performed his duty. The next day, he awoke to the sound of antlers clashing, and he saw a thousand deer – they had accepted humans into their family.”
Living in Switzerland, Letykai feels poignantly the divisions between generations. There are few events that truly bring all ages together like in the past. “They have lost their connection with nature, their spiritual connection,” she said. However, there are some signs of progress, including the growing popularity of non-traditional medicines, which are, rather ironically, quite traditional for her. These homeopathic methods are often covered by insurance. “Society listens that there is another way,” she said. People are realizing that modern isn’t always better. This tension between the ancient and the modern is evident in her homeland as well. When she performed during her return in 2012, people praised her highly, saying she danced like those of generations past. This was a great compliment to her, “but on the other hand, it was sad,” she said. “Our culture is changing.” Letykai continues to work with organizations to ensure that minority rights are heard, traditional hunting issues are not ignored, and climate concerns are addressed. Her upcoming schedule is brimming. The coming months will include performances, conferences, the release of a disc featuring her music, plans to travel back to her homeland, and other projects still in the works. And when the world needs a reminder to unite rather than to divide, she relies on her musical rituals: “We are always connected to nature.”