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Cama-i returns after 2 years with a different setup and venue

Jessica Frank dances with Gladys Jung at the 2019 Cama-i Festival in Bethel on March 30,2019
Gabby Salgado
Jessica Frank dances with Gladys Jung at the 2019 Cama-i festival in Bethel on March 30, 2019.

The Cama-i Dance Festival returns in March 2022 after a two-year break. The festival is a celebration of dance and Yup’ik culture that brings performers and artists together from across the world. But the festival will look a little different this year. For over 30 years, Cama-i was an annual event. But in 2020, everything changed.

“Seven days before setup, we had to cancel it because of COVID,” said festival organizer Linda Curda. Cama-i was canceled again in 2021, but this year it’s returning.

“Everyone has been asking me when are we yuraqing? When are we dancing again?” said Curda. “We are set to go at the end of this month.”

This year’s event is being sponsored by the SouthWest Alaska Arts Group (previously the Bethel Council on the Arts). It
will have a scaled down set up, and will be held in a smaller venue instead of its usual location at Bethel Regional High School. This year's Cama-i will occur at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel. The dancing and drumming will begin at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 26 and continue throughout the weekend. The last performance will be at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 27. The theme for this year’s festival is Yurarturciqukut “Resilience through Dance” and Cangeliim Nalliini “During a Pandemic.”

The in-person audience will be much smaller than usual; the cultural center is only able to seat up to 200 people at a time. Tickets cost $8, and each ticket buys about a five-hour time slot. Attendees are required to wear masks. If you can’t attend in person, you can watch the entire weekend live-streamed on YouTube.

“I'd really encourage family members and friends to take a computer and go visit an Elder, and watch Cama’i with them,” said Curda. “I really would like to keep our Elders safe.”

This year's event will honor “living treasure” Elder Albertina Dull, who turned 102 this year. She will be attending the event remotely from her home in Nightmute.

There are several other changes to this year’s festival, which are designed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. There will not be a traditional food dinner, which in the past served 600 to 800 people. There will not be a Miss Cama-i pageant either, and there will also be fewer dancers. The festival usually welcomes about 22 dance groups, but this year only 13 groups are scheduled to perform. Most are from Bethel.

“We also have dancers from Chefornak, Kwethluk, and Napaskiak. We're bringing back the Aleutian Pribilof dance group Unangax,” said Curda. “And the Underground Dance Company. And it's a hip hop street [style]; very exciting group for young people.”

Despite the pandemic, many elements of this year’s festival will remain the same. Craft tables will be set up for vendors, and attendees don’t need a ticket to visit their booths. The Fur Fashion Show will also return and be held at 4 p.m. on March 26.

Tickets for the festival are available on the Bethel Arts Council’s website, along with a full schedule of events. The Southwest Alaska Arts Group is also hosting a panel discussion and reading of the new book “Ircenrrat: Other than human persons” on March 25 at the Cultural Center. Several Yup’ik Elders helped compile the book.

“I think we all know that we are missing the drums. That coming together, that expression of joy and storytelling that is done through Yup'ik dance. It's been hard for everyone not to come together in this way,” Curda said.

Volunteers are still needed and can contact Linda Curda at 907-350-0342.

Corrected: March 14, 2022 at 1:26 PM AKDT
An earlier version of this story did not mention that the event is sponsored by the SouthWest Alaska Arts Group.
Desiree Hagen is temporarily working for KYUK as part of a reporter exchange supported by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism. She works for KBBI in Homer, where she wears many hats. Her passions include stories involving local agriculture, wild habitats, and arts and culture.
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