The 2017 Cama-i Dance Festival begins Friday at the Bethel Regional High School. The weekend-long cultural celebration marks the largest annual gathering of Alaska Native dance in the world.
This year’s theme is Nunaniryuum Nalliini, meaning "The Time of Joy."
“It is the opposite of mourning. Cama-i is a celebration,” said Peter Atchak, who’s been helping organize the dance festival for more than a decade.
Dancers are coming from near and far. Linda Curda has been co-coordinating the Cama-i Festival for 25 years and lists some of the highlights: “Danza Matachin Pavo Real group. That is a Mexican-Indian dance group from Texas. We’re excited we have a Cree Indian group out of Canada. Pamyua, we haven’t had them here for many, many years.”
Along with the pioneering Alaska-Greenland band Pamyua, there will also be regional groups performing from places like Alukanuk, Chevak, and Mountain Village.
Soon after the festival begins Friday evening, Cama-i will honor Raphael and Vivian Jimmy of Mountain Village as Living Treasures. Peter Atchak says the honor is a way for the community to say thank you to the culture bearers who’ve kept Yup’ik dancing alive.
“Raphael and Vivian represent the age that many of us didn’t see, during the time when Western civilization hadn’t come into our area yet,” said Atchak. “And they have retained a lot of what used to be the traditional type of dancing, and they practice that with their group now. They carry on the tradition like it was before any interruption or touch from Western civilization or anywhere else in the world.”
When honoring the Living Treasures the community also remembers the Living Treasures who’ve been honored before them, like last year’s David Boyscout of Chevak who died last week of natural causes at the age of 93.
“Ever since I was a toddler,” said Atchak, “[David Boyscout] was one of the drummers on the stage. Whenever we had Eskimo dancing he was always there. He belonged to the Traditional Council of the village. He was a true leader of our people.”
The next day of the Festival, Saturday, a tradition is being revived after more than a decade: the Fur Fashion Show. Linda Curda got the idea after the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus started a fur parka sewing class and students asked to share their work.
“And I said, we can’t just share it, we have to create the Fur Fashion Show again.”
It was last held in 2005. Anyone wearing any fur or other traditional clothing can take part by showing up at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. The show starts at 6 p.m. Curda calls the event a parade of history, tradition, and skill.
Next up at 7:45 p.m. is Peter Atchak’s favorite moment of the weekend - the Heart of the Drums. All the drummers at the festival climb to the top of the bleachers in the Bethel Regional High School gym, circling the audience, and begin to beat in unison.
“It’s usually a very powerful time of Cama-i where everybody participates,” said Atchak.
“I do believe that as the drum is beating and the song is being sung, that all of our hearts truly get in unison,” said Curda, “and your bodies share with one another and we all become the drum ourselves.”
“We’ve had people come up to us afterwards,” said Atchak, “and say, 'I didn’t expect that.' Some of them come with their daily challenges, and they’re heavy laden, and then say, 'I no longer feel like that. I no longer feel heavy laden. Some healing happened during the Heart of the Drums.'”
In that moment of healing the "YK Delta Memoriam" will begin, a slide-show of the loved ones who’ve passed from the region and a time for all to remember them together.
“To be involved with that, what you’ll need to do,” Atchak explained, “is send a photo of your loved one who’s passed on, their name and their Yup'ik name, date of birth and date of death, and the village where they came from.”
You can email that information to Loddie_Jones@lksd.org.
The Miss Cama-i Pageant Show will follow the Memoriam. Also on Saturday are free dental screenings from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Dental Clinic, a workshop on Yup’ik regalia, and the Native Foods Dinner. Help is needed for the meal.
“In three hours they feed around 700 folks, so we really need help,” said Curda. “If you have moose, caribou, fowl, fish, soup, stews, agutuk. We would love your support and help. Please label your pots with your name and phone number.”
Throughout it all they’ll be dancing, beginning Friday evening and stretching over three days of celebration, remembrance, and culture into Sunday night.
“Don’t stay behind. Come and join us during Cama-i if you can,” said Atchak.
Cama-i is still looking for volunteers. To sign up to help and to get a free one-day pass, call Jody Drew at 545-0580.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name and email of Loddie Jones. The correct email is Loddie_Jones@lksd.org