Cama-i honors Chevak Elder and culture bearer with Living Treasure Award
It’s the end of the first night of the Cama-i dance festival and 74-year-old John Pingayak has just finished performing alongside his Pingayak Dance Group
The Chevak Elder sits down in the Bethel Regional High School music room, which has been temporarily converted temporarily into Cama-i Headquarters.
Before the performance, Pingayak was focused between conversations with his family. He held a small child. He wasn’t fazed by the packed gymnasium, the abundance of sound, or the bright flashes of regalia.
But at the moment, sitting in the rigid blue school chair, he is tired and overwhelmed. He is catching his breath. He takes a drink of water, then starts to talk.
“I started when I graduated from college in 1977. During that time in the early 80s, I started our cultural heritage program and started dancing, and singing, and training the young people starting from kindergarten all the way up to high school,” Pingayak said.
Pingayak was honored by the festival committee with the Cama-i 2023 Living Treasure Award after singing, dancing, and drumming on stage in the Warrior Dome for more than 20 minutes.
“I make about 10 songs every year for them to celebrate during Cultural Heritage Week, which is a celebration of learning about our culture, our history, as well as our values and the history of our Elders. And things that they want to pass on to our younger generation. Respect the Elders of the past that have already gone and they will tell us, you know,” said Pingayak.
Pingayak also said that these are not lessons that he is creating.
“It's something that is passed on from one generation to another. And so it's my legacy to do that, all those years, around 40 years that I've been working as a cultural heritage coordinator and director,” Pingayak said.
Pingayak sips more water. He’s still in a trance, but he feels the urgency of passing down those traditions. This is the first full festival in three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He feels that loss of time.
“Tonight I shared, I opened up. I felt [the] release to continue what I do because when COVID came, we were isolated and now we're reviving our dancing. And that is very healthy for our people,” said Pingayak. “We can't just stay by ourselves, we have to come and watch, and be involved with dancing and teaching our young people how to survive our tundra land, as well as in Western way too.”
Pingayak said that his goal is to share everything he knows with people who are curious about the Yup’ik and Cup’ik way of life.
“I have to be sharing like our Elders are; they're always sharing and they never withhold. If I withhold my culture and not tell them about it, it'll pass away and die when I leave this life,” Pingayak said. And so it should be kind of like some energy that we need to establish as settlers to pass on what we know and what we have learned from the past.”
The dance group puts away their drums; they take off their headdresses and fur mukluks. Pingayak looks at the plaque he was gifted by festival organizers. He said that it inspires him to carry his culture and pass along the values.
“When we're unified as a community, it brings our healing and revival of what the Elders have taught us. And we need to practice that in our schools,” Pingayak said. “It should not be banned at all in our schools. Our young people should be learning about their way of life, and who they are and where they came from as well as our history. And we just need to start practicing nurturing our way of life.”
After passing it around to the rest of the group, Pingayak puts the plaque in a bag. He reflects on its significance.
“I think our way of life is something that we have to value today because it's disappearing. And our way of singing and dancing is disappearing,” Pingayak said. “And we need to continue to respect our Creator at the same time. And also, when we have spirituality, it's really helpful for our people in this land, because we depend on our Creator to give us food, or salmon, or food that we need in our rivers and the land that we live on.”
Pingayak gathers the dance group in a circle. He leads them in prayer. One last tradition passed on for the evening.