After this year's Yup'ik Heritage Week at Bethel Regional High School, a three-day Yuraq Yup’ik Dance Festival took place in the school gymnasium.
Dancers have come from villages across the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta for this year’s Dance Festival. This is the first year Yuraq has been held in Bethel, as it has traveled in the past from village to village. It’s one of the few times of year when groups can come together, listen to songs from other villages —some they may have never heard before—, and even join in with other dance groups.
Kathleen Naneng is the Yup'ik Dance Teacher at Bethel Regional High School and helped organize the festival.
“Sometime in the fall time, Doug Boyer, our assistant principal, said we’re signed up to do the Yuraq festival this year.” said Naneng. “So I started thinking about all the activities we could do for our whole school during the festival.”
Naneng decided to call is the LKSD dance festival, but when people on Facebook didn’t know what that meant, she decided to just say the Yuraq festival.
Every group from each village school gets to take turns doing an equal number of dances. A dinner break at the end of the day is held for dancers with traditional food before dances begin again.
Twenty dancers with eight drummers behind them line the gymnasium floor, as dancers and drummers occasionally join in one by one, some staying for several verses before returning to their seats. Others stay for the remainder of the song.
“What I like about this festival is it’s all about our culture. There is no crafts being sold in the lobby,” said Naneng. “It’s more traditional than any other festival that I know. It’s all Yup'ik culture activities.”
This is what separates it from Cama'i. It’s all Yup'ik culture focused. Instead of selling crafts, students did beading, doll making, fish net making, trap making, and qaspeq making. And Bethel students appreciate that focus.
“This is what I love,” said student Max Angaiak. “It’s part of our life, and when people watch Yuraq, it just lets all that stress and all that bad feeling go away and a feeling comes in. Like a really great feeling.”
Max is the lead singer for the Kuskokwim Learning Academy dance group, who get up next after the Akiuk Dancers.
“I just hope it gets passed on to the next generation,” said Angaiak.
Devin Tunutmoak, another student from Bethel, agrees.
“The biggest hope for me is to see the way of Yuyaraq and the way how dance, Yuyaraq, is supposed to be passed down to the future generation,” said Tunutmoak. “Just so they carry on the legacy of Yuyaraq, the way of life.”
Instructor Kathleen Naneng hopes something like it can become a regular part of the school year in Bethel.
“I really hope our school gets to do this every year, once a year,” said Naneng. “Even if we don’t have all the schools coming to gather at our school to dance, I really hope that our students at BRHS get to do cultural activities during the day for at least two days a year.”