Cama-i Festival, Bethel Alaska (part one): A celebration of dance and community

 

We’d heard wonderful things about Cama-i, a Yup’ik festival, but at first I had my doubts.

We’d gone to Bethel specifically to attend Cama-i (pronounced “chuh- my”).  The setting was Bethel Regional High School, a group of large, wooden buildings painted blue and perched on stilts, and the performances were in the gymnasium.  The bleachers were extended on both sides, and many rows of folding chairs covered the gym floor.  Nachos and hot dogs were the prime concession-stand fare.  Lockers lined the hallways, and handmade signs covered every inch of wall space.  It felt like we were attending a basketball game rather than what it actually was—an international dance festival.

By the end of the weekend, however, I was sold on Cama-i.  It was so much more than just a festival; it was a celebration—of dance, culture, and community.  Cama-i put on an open display of love for the Yup’ik culture, and non-Yup’iks were invited to share in the experience as well.  The theme of this year’s festival was Nunaniryuum Nalliini, “The Time of Joy,”  and it fit.

In this post, I’ll talk a bit about Cama-i and Yup’ik culture, and then in the next I’ll share the colorful, vibrant images and stories of the dances.

History of Cama-i

I first discussed the Yup’ik people in an earlier post.  The largest group of Eskimos in the world, the Yup’iks inhabit the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta and southwest Alaska, and they have a strong sense of their roots.  Unlike many Native American tongues, all five Yupik languages are still widely spoken.  Elders are revered as a source of knowledge and wisdom.  Immersion schools teach children Yup’ik language, culture, and history.  And many communities have dance groups.

Dance has always been a centerpiece of Yup’ik culture and integral to the spiritual and social lives of its people.  Some dances told stories; others celebrated aspects of life in western Alaska—hunting and berry picking, animals, sports.  Still other dances were prayers for a bountiful spring and for the return of animals and plants and the Bering Sea driftwood that was used by Yup’iks for everything.

Dances took place in the qasgiq, or men’s community house, a large, multi-purpose building inhabited during the winter by the males of the tribe. The Yup’iks were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in fishing camps in the summer and then returned to their villages, and the qasgiqs, in the winter.  It was here that the men not only participated in dance ceremonies but also taught their sons construction and survival skills and the history and traditions of the Yup’ik people.¹

Pair of masked dancers performing in the village of Qissunaq, 1946 (Credit: Alfred Milotte, Alaska State Museum 1103)

When Americans reached the Y-K Delta in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, everything changed.  Bureaucrats, missionaries, and teachers promoted Western values while suppressing Native traditions and languages.  Yup’ik dances were dismissed as idolatry, and the qasgiqs were replaced by schools and churches.  And in some places, the Yup’ik culture was nearly eradicated.

Fortunately, a scattering of villages remained untouched, and it was the residents of these villages, exposed to the Yup’ik culture as children, who led a movement in the second half of the 20th century to revive and preserve Yup’ik traditions.

Each year, the festival honors some of these people as Living Treasures, culture bearers who have devoted their lives to preserving Yup’ik traditions.  And this year was no exception.

Raphael Jimmy (Source: Camai.org)

The first to be honored were 92-year-old Raphael Jimmy and his 86-year-old wife, Vivian, both from Mountain Village (pop. 800).  An article from Alaska Public Media described Raphael and Vivian, who have been married for 69 years, as representatives of “an age that many of us didn’t see, during the time when Western civilization hadn’t come into our area yet.”  The couple learned the traditional dances growing up and taught them to others, and they continue to dance and sing with their ensemble, the Kuigparmiut Dancers.  Vivian and Raphael “carry on the tradition like it was before any interruption from Western civilization or anywhere else in the world.” ²

The Kuigparmiut Dancers.  Raphael and Vivian, who were honored as Living Treasures, are the couple standing nearest to the microphone.  Vivian is reading a message of thanks in Yupik

When the group took the stage to perform, Raphael had to be helped up the stairs and to his place, but he was clearly the group’s leader.  He hit his drum with intensity, and when he began to sing, his strong, clear voice carried across the gym.  Dale and I looked at each other, astonished.  Raphael had transformed from a frail, elderly man to the powerful lead voice of the Kuigparmiut Dancers.

The other Living Treasure honored at the festival was Maria Arnaq Meade, from Nunapiciaq, a small village in the Y-K Delta.  She is an instructor of humanities at University of Alaska-Anchorage, and she has dedicated her career to preserving Yup’ik history, documenting the cultural knowledge and oral histories of Yup’ik elders and sharing her discoveries in the form of exhibits, publications, and lectures.

Marie Arnaq Meade, standing front, right (in blue), being honored by members of many of the other dance groups

The Cama-i community

Cama-i started in the 1980’s as a place for Yup’ik people to share music and dances.  It has since grown into an international festival that draws thousands of people annually, not just from the Y-K Delta and Alaska but from national and international locales as well.

Despite its growth, Cama-i is very much a community affair.  Other than the cleaning crew, which is paid, the festival is run entirely by hundreds of volunteers.  It’s sponsored by the Bethel Council on the Arts, which raises money for the festival through the sale of tickets, t-shirts, and concessions.  And sponsors include both small local businesses and large corporations such as Alaska Airlines.

A Native foods banquet took place on Saturday evening, and all of the food was donated by members of the community.  The printed program advertised requests for moose, caribou, fish, and fowl as well as stew, soup, and akutaq, an ancient Yup’ik ice cream recipe that includes animal fat, fresh berries, seal oil, and ground fish.  Not quite like the Blue Bell Ice Cream I ate growing up, but supposedly delicious!  The request for food donations included instructions for marking one’s dishes so that they could be returned:  “Mark containers–name and phone number for us to return pot.”  Only in a small town…

Cama-i also paid tribute to deceased community members, and this gave the festival an intimate feeling:

The Y-K Delta Memoriam, which took place Saturday evening, was a slide show remembering those from the Y-K Delta who had passed away in the past year.

And Room C20, down a back hallway of the high school, contained A Place of Remembrance, dedicated to those who had committed suicide.  I was surprised by this; could the number of suicide victims be so high that an entire room was dedicated to them?  The answer, sadly, was yes.

Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, and of all the regions, the Y-K Delta has the most incidents in the state.  The victims are inordinately young, male Alaskan Natives, many from small villages.  Suicide amongst Alaskan Natives is often linked to alcoholism and mental illness, both of which often go untreated in rural areas.  The Y-K Delta is also one of the poorest regions in the nation, and opportunities for young people are limited.  One person I met told me that almost everyone who lives in the area knows someone who has been affected by suicide.  The purpose of Place of Remembrance was to promote “remembrance, sharing, and healing,” and I hope that the presence of such a room at Cama-i provided comfort to those attendees who might be hurting.

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At the end of the weekend, after 2-1/2 days of immersion in the songs and dances of the Yup’ik people, I felt gratitude for the opportunity to attend Cama-i.  It was like an intimate community event, albeit one that attracted thousands of people!

In the next post, I share the centerpiece of Cama-i: the dances!

 


Notes:

¹One of the festival emcees pointed out that historically, only men were allowed to dance, but that one day, the women protested, saying, “Hey, we have stories to tell, also!” and they were then allowed to join in the dance ceremonies.

² Source: “Bethel organizers prepare for the 2017 Cama’i Dance Festival,” Alaska Public Media, March 30, 2017