In January of 1988 the North Slope Borough of Alaska sponsored a Kivgiq. It was the first such presentation in over 80 years of the Inupiat Eskimo Messenger's Feast which can trace its origins to the beginnings of the Inupiat culture. Participants came together in Barrow, Alaska from all of the eight arctic villages of the North Slope Borough--where the sun sets in mid-November and rises mid-January each winter. The 2,000 plus spectators and participants that gathered in the high school gym for three days represented the largest single gathering of people ever on the North Slope. The revival of the Kivgiq was motivated not by the spiritual necessity of its origins, nor by trade or barter, which it later facilitated, but by renewed interest in the traditional social and cultural values that the Feast encodes.

The 1988 Kivgiq brought together in performance the songs, dances, and events that had laid scattered in cultural memory and threatened with extinction. And with its revival came a reaffirmation of Inupiat values that consoled the present as it re-discovered an ancient past. It was in 1987, when newly elected Borough Mayor, George Ahamaogak, coming to office on the heels of a political scandal and sensing the need for an uplifting community event, decided to sponsor a Kivgiq. He appointed a "special assistant", Rex Okakok, who traveled and met with elders throughout the North Slope Borough to re-construct the Kivgiq from their memories. The elders were more than glad to comply for they had long been concerned with the increased Westernization of their culture; the old ways were being lost and the language forgotten because there were fewer and fewer cultural events to hold it.

Badai Ritual Singing recorded deep in the Wuling Mountains, Hunan, China. 2016

Theru Koothu, short documentary of Tamil death ritual. 2013

Most of his work has to do with the bringing up of the memory and knowledge of what has been forgotten. One of the goals of his work is to bridge the gap between the modern and the traditional which would give indigenous people a way of relating to the modern world on their terms.

Dagen Nyheter, Sweden

Thomas Riccio spent 15 years in the Alaskan wilderness--not to speak of all those trips to Siberia, Africa, and eastern Asia. Now he's transporting all that experience back to suburban Dallas. The world-renowned expert in performance by indigenous peoples became the head of StoryLAB, a new media and performance program.

Dallas Morning News

Riccio has taken regional theatre world distances. Mr. Riccio is committed to exploring and developing indigenous theatre worldwide, helping native cultures create their own theatre, where the emphasis is on the experimental, in sharp contrast with traditional Western theatre, which affirms Western values.

Newsletter Society of Stage Director and Choreographers

With the ever unfolding and fantastical propagation of technology humans are becoming increasingly convinced of technology's magic-like abilities and potential.

Laptops serve as animistic electricity fetishes enabling a sense of control and power in an unpredictable world. Like a latter-day Ouija board, our fingers move over keyboards and tracking pads asking questions and seeking answers from symbols as to call up information, visions, and fantasies from the banal to the arcane.

Cell phones have become magic wand appendages, loaded with applications and serving as shaman-like rattle sticks, empowered with sounds and insights enabling the survival of the post-modern hunter-gatherer. They are talismanic communicators helping us understand and navigate by capturing holding, measuring, and deciphering the seen and unseen forces of the surrounding world. The cell phone can endow its user with a sense of control, status, and connection with invisible worlds. The cell phone and computer are latter-day magical objects filled with the mojo to make us stronger than the biological limitations. In the spaces around live the dark digital spirits waiting to be conjured, like  a séance, into a voice, a message or image. 

The web is a mana machine, ethereal yet a pathway of networks offering near-instantaneous knowledge, people, other times and places. It is a non-place that has magically given shape to the intangible collective world mind. It is a human-made urging for a collective will. It is an attempt at oneness that was once the providence of God or nature. It is something readily available to a teenager.

Synthetic chemicals, biotech drugs, and modern medical devices are our latter-day medicinal herbs, potions, and juju power objects. Such things were formerly served up by a healer, shaman or herbalist who were able to decipher the hidden world, and understood all sickness as dealing with the spirits, unbalance, histories, and dreams. Today medicine converses with that which is invisible to the unaided eye. Sprite-like DNA, genetic pre-disposition, and emotional or environmental unbalance revealed in the recesses of dreams and histories follows the patterns and concerns first identified by our ancestors during the now archaic way of being in the world. The expression of old and new may be different, but the methods follow the well-worn pattern of human systems. 


Eagle-Wolf Messenger Feast, Kiviq, 2017

photos by Bill Hess


Robot: Ritual as Oracle and Fetish

excerpt from and an essay published in

Transforming Culture in the Digital Age, 2011