Heart of the Drums carries tradition, generational stories for Cama-i visitors
Cama-i’s "Heart of the Drums" ceremonial performance started when more than 45 drummers marched from backstage and dispersed to the top row of both sides of the bleachers that line Bethel Regional High School’s gymnasium. The drummers spanned three generations and were of mixed genders.
Maurice Nanalook is 41 and originally from Togiak, but has lived in Bethel for the past 20 years. He was on stage alongside his uncle, John Pingayak, for the performance on March 26.
“Dancing is our way of making prayer, or agayuliyararput. Basically, every spring, certain villages would get together and pray for more fish, more berries, and more driftwood. They would give thanks for what they caught before the next year came and ask that they be just as plentiful, or maybe more, the following year,” Nanalook said. “We've also used dancing as a form of storytelling. We’d dance about past loved ones or memorable hunts that happened with other people that we went with.”
"A long time ago inside of the Qasgiq, they would gather all the drummers as one,” Nanalook said. “But to complete that whole song, the whole place had to be covered with the sound of drums all the way around.”
A Qasgiq, according to Nanalook, was a men’s sod house. A place where they did all their work, where they took their fire baths. It also served as a community hall, where they practiced songs and dances. There was always an opening in the center of the roof of the sod house.
“Right after the song was sung, they gathered everybody together. You made sure that the live drums were loud enough for our ancestors to hear through the window that they had upon the center of the sod house, which was always open,” Nanalook said. “That way our ancestors would be looking down through that window that's open, and watch everybody else how everything is done, making sure that it was passed on the right way.”
The second song the group played was a family song. Nanalook said that it tells the story of six hunters trapped out in the ocean.
“When the wind started picking up, they couldn't make it back to land and they thought they were gonna die. And they must have started hallucinating or from malnutrition. In their own eyes, they saw a really huge spider coming from the sky, which grabbed the center kayak and brought all of them out of the water since all the kayaks were taped together so that nobody would drift away,” Nanalook said. “Right as soon as the spider grabbed it, brought them all the way over to the closest beach, and dropped them right there where everybody was thinking that they were going to die. And yet they survived, all together. They came up with a song and dance to thank the creator for saving their lives.”