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Brand new Bethel Yuraq group performs on AFN's statewide stage

Qasgirmiut, one of Bethel’s newest Yuraq groups, dances for their first-ever statewide audience at the Alaska Federation of Natives gathering on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022 at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage.
Emily Schwing
Qasgirmiut members perform during a midday break at the 2022 Alaska Federaton of Natives Convention. The group was founded in 2019, only months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Alaska. This was the first time the group has been able to perform on a statewide stage.

For the first time in three years, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) held its annual convention in person. This year, more dance groups than ever were in Anchorage to perform. One of Bethel’s newest groups, Qasgirmiut, was there to yuraq before their first ever statewide audience.

Most Tuesday and Saturdays, and sometimes on Thursdays, the group meets in Bethel’s former bowling alley to practice Yuraq. Panuk Agimuk founded the group back in 2019, only months before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“When we first started this group, there was three drummers and six dancers,” said Agimuk, as he pointed to a room filled with his friends and family. These days, at least 50 people gather to practice. There are almost a dozen drummers now. When it’s time to dance, someone will start playing the drum and dozens of people gather with their dance fans to move to the beat.

Qasgirmiut’s songs and dances are about everyday life in Western Alaska: going fishing, picking berries, and birds in flight. Every song also delivers a surprise. Sometimes dancers break into modern moves known worldwide, including the Macarena.

“Yeah, to make the Elders laugh and enjoy their time,” said Victoria Sosa. She joined Qasgirmiut a few months ago. She said that it’s a life goal to perform at the convention.

“I remember going to the hospital with my grandparents, and they have Yuraq teams go and dance. And I was always like ‘Wow, I want to be a part of that,’" she said. “Because the way that they made the people laugh, and the way that the crowd felt and looked. It was really exciting for me.”

Andrew Kilanak is in his 60s. He’s been playing the drum and singing since he was young.

“When I was a kid, I used to go to practices and always go sit by my uncle. And right next to my uncle is my dad,” he said. “ He just looked at me and smiled, and I just sang with that old man.” Kilanak is one of the main drummers and singers. He likes to put his own spin on some older, more traditional songs.

In the last few months, practice in Bethel had become a little more intense as the group prepared for its first-ever performance during the 2022 AFN. Performing at AFN was a first for 11-year-old Mildred Temple, who said that she learned Yuraq by watching other members of the group.

“At first I was too shy to dance, and then I just started dancing,” Temple said. “What makes me excited about it is being able to dance on stage, and being happy being there and having family [there].”

Qasgirmiut is among nearly 20 groups that performed during AFN this year. According to the organization, it’s the largest number of groups to ever perform during the annual gathering.

*This story was corrected to more accurately reflect the days on which Qasgirmiut meets to practice. It originally reported regular Thursday practices.