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Bethel Search and Rescue fills the floor at annual fiddle dance fundraiser

A couples dance is seen at the Bethel Search and Rescue Fiddle Dance Fundraiser at Bethel Regional High School on Nov. 25, 2023.
Evan Erickson
A couples dance is seen at the Bethel Search and Rescue Fiddle Dance Fundraiser at Bethel Regional High School on Nov. 25, 2023.

If your idea of fun is six straight hours of live music, line dancing, raffles, and soda chugging in a school gymnasium for two nights in a row, then the Western Alaska fiddle dance was made for you. The annual Thanksgiving Fiddle Dance Fundraiser for Bethel Search and Rescue held on Nov. 24 and 25 at Bethel Regional High School (BRHS) checked all of these boxes.

After more than 25 years, the fiddle dance also helped the organization raise around $16,000, which included a $12,000 donation from Donlin Gold. But Bethel Search and Rescue volunteers say that’s just a fraction of the funds needed to keep operations running.

Mike Riley, president of Bethel Search and Rescue, said that there likely would have been more than the roughly 200 people in attendance if the conditions on the partially frozen Kuskokwim River hadn’t been so perilous.

“Usually we get a lot of village people, but with the conditions as it is they're not able to make it into Bethel,” Riley said.

Those who did make it included two musicians from the tundra village of Atmautluak who joined Napakiak’s Northern Lights Band to provide hours of classic country and rock n’ roll covers.

As soon as the music stopped, the dead air quickly filled with the sound of raffles for everything from heart-shaped cakes, fire logs, and toffee popcorn, to fuel cards, chainsaws, and cash.

Recent BRHS graduate Linea Chase, whose mother is a long-time Bethel Search and Rescue volunteer, weaved through families seated in the bleachers selling raffle tickets for one of around a dozen cakes.

“I've been fiddling since I guess as long as I can remember,” Chase said.

Fiddle dances are widely enjoyed by generations of Bethel residents. Heather Stuart, a teacher at Gladys Jung Elementary, has also been coming to fiddle dances her whole life.

“I grew up learning. I learned how to polka, schottische, two-step, and waltz here,” Stuart said.

While COVID-19 restrictions put a serious damper on fiddle dances in recent years, Stuart said that she’s hopeful they’ll continue to be a part of life in Bethel.

“I was just talking to a gentleman, and he said, ‘Well, why aren’t there more fiddle dances?’ Stuart said. “And I said, ‘There used to be, there used to be a fiddle dance in Bethel every weekend or every couple of weekends, but now I'm mostly hearing about them in the villages.’ So I'd love to see them come back.”

Each year at the fiddle dance, Bethel Search and Rescue picks its Elder of the Year. This year it honored the late long-time volunteer Robert Lekander, who passed away in July. His family accepted the award on his behalf on the night of Nov. 25.

Riley praised Lekander for his advice and depth of knowledge during more than 20 years as a volunteer. Riley also revealed that the Bethel Search and Rescue airboat will soon be emblazoned with Lekander’s Yup’ik name: “Qayik’aq.”

Bethel Search and Rescue will host their next fiddle dance fundraiser sometime in the spring.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.