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‘Unify, make it one’: Kassiglurmiut Yurartait prepare for Cama-i

The day before Leap Day, the floor of Kasigluk’s Qaluksuk Memorial Community Center bounds up and down with the beat of yuraq.

Drummers sit on benches and chairs in front of the windows that glow pink in the sunset. A few Elders sit to the side, watching the action. Facing the drummers, boys of all ages kneel in two neat rows. Girls and women fill in the rows behind, standing above. Babies weave through the crowd.

“Some villages, their dances are dying. They’re no more. I don’t want that here,” says Levi Nicholas, a drum leader for the group. At the practice, he sits at the middle of the drum line wearing a purple and yellow Lakers jersey. Nicholas says that yuraq has experienced somewhat of a resurgence in Kasigluk.

“A lot has changed in the last few years,” Nicholas says. “There's more kids, more adults.”

Wilson Twitchell is another drummer and leader for Kassiglurmiut Yurartait, the Kasigluk dance group.

“You’ve got these little tiny ones, not yet in school that are mimicking their older siblings, they're learning from them at the same time,” Twitchell says. “They may be dancing any which way, but at least they're practicing, they're doing their movement, their motions.”

Twitchell says that it’s a collaborative learning process for the generations represented in the Kasigluk yuraq group. “You have them each correct each other. You talk to them and say, ‘This is how you want to do it.’ Sometimes abruptly ending the song and having to correct everybody, whether it be the drummers and how they're pronouncing something or how they're toning it, or the motions.” He gestures to the right and to the left. “If one half is motioning this way, the other the other way, the motions are visible. So you want to unify, make it one,” he says.

Building camaraderie through yuraq

Yuraq is a year-round community activity in Kasigluk, but the energy at the end-of-February practice is especially high. Kassiglurmiut Yurartait are in the final weeks of preparation for the Cama-i Dance Festival.

“There's a big difference between practicing and performing,” says drum leader Nicholas. “When we're practicing, I notice that our dancers, they don’t yurapak, don’t dance as hard as they do when they're performing. I guess because people are watching them. When we're performing our dances they dance harder.”

Kasigluk community members wait for the door of the Qaluksuk Memorial Community Center to be unlocked before yuraq practice, Feb. 28, 2024.
MaryCait Dolan
Kasigluk community members wait for the door of the Qaluksuk Memorial Community Center to be unlocked before yuraq practice, Feb. 28, 2024.

In 2023, Kassiglurmiut Yurartait packed the gym at Cama-i, receiving a rare standing ovation.

“I don't know [why],” Nicholas says. “Maybe it's our group’s vibe.”

Kasigluk’s songs and dances cover a wide range of topics: manaqing (ice fishing) at the mouth of the Johnson River, beaver hunting, and combing your hair before going out.

Twitchell says that there’s a level of intuition in the group, even in the youngest dancers. “They want to perform. We don't tell them, ‘You guys have got to perform really hard.’ We don't prep it. They know they know. When it's time, they explode. Explode that energy,” he says. “It's cool, a good feeling.”

Twitchell says that for him, the experience of yuraq is almost physiological.

“I could liken it to catching something, you know, an animal that's running right past you, and you try and grab, right? But it's – it's in your body, that energy is in your body. And you can't release it. And you have that tense moment while you're trying to take your breath before the next song, and you're trying to control it.” Twitchell rubs his fist against his chest. “I'm feeling it.”

And, he says, that physical experience extends to the group. “You're one. You’re one with all the drummers and singers, you're moving at the same time with the dancers, you're just having fun experiencing that energy together,” Twitchell says, “Because it does bleed out that energy.”

Fourteen-year-old Preston Andrew moves between the rows of dancing boys and the drum line.

“I love yuraqing,” Andrew says. “It makes me feel free, takes out my bad energy, lets me feel better. Like earlier today, it was almost bad for me, and then I heard there was yuraq and I got happy because it's my happy place.”

It’s a sentiment shared by his father, drum leader Nicholas. Yuraq “lifts me,” Nicholas says. “It’s a stress reliever.”

Andrew, his son, says that he was four or five when his dad started bringing him to yuraq practice, and six when he attended Cama-i for the first time. He keeps coming back.

“The excitement the crowd gives us, how they cheer for us and the energy you get from it, it just makes me feel good,” Andrew says.

Twitchell agrees: performing is a unique experience. “It's exciting,” he says. “Sometimes I catch myself only focusing on the drummers. I mean, the audience I know is there, but it's in a blur, right? And you're focusing on your dancers. Maybe a trance would be too much of an explanation, but something like tunnel vision.”

But Twitchell says that for the community, especially for the kids, yuraq goes beyond the experience of dance itself.

Dancers and drummers at yuraq practice in Kasigluk on Feb. 28, 2024.
MaryCait Dolan
Dancers and drummers at yuraq practice in Kasigluk on Feb. 28, 2024. Levi Hoover (center, in navy blue) sits next to Levi Nicholas (center, in yellow).

“I think it strengthens camaraderie, the friendship, the group atmosphere that they have when they gather, and they take it outside of the practice room,” Twitchell says.

Twitchell adds that the group also uses the motivation of participating in the community’s yuraq group as a way to help incentivize students to stay in line at school.

“Whoever has behavioral problems will not be permitted to be traveling on those planes and whatnot,” Twitchell explains. “And I think that keeps them straight. At least we hope it does. But it's an incentive, kind of like sports, high school sports, same thing.”

Kasigluk’s living treasure

Kasigluk Elder Ap’alluk Levi Hoover is being honored as one of the Cama-i festival’s Living Treasures this year. Twitchell says that Hoover was instrumental in bringing yuraq back to the community.

“It was banned by missionaries,” Twitchell says. “And places where it wasn't banned, they just pretty much faded off. Growing up, the only dance group I knew about was Nelson Island Dancers.”

Along with other community members, Twitchell says that Hoover encouraged community participation in rebuilding the practice of yuraq.

“He was the backbone of that,” Twitchell says. “Without him, this wouldn't be.”

Nicholas says that the discipline and joyous vibe of Kassiglurmiut Yurartait can be tied to Hoover as well.

“He was our Yup’ik teacher. I'm sure after I quit school he used to pick on other drummers too,” Nicholas says. “While we were practicing yuraq he'd stop us. And then he'd say, ‘I can't hear you. You need to sing louder.’ While we were drumming he'd stop us. ‘You're not yuraqing the way you're supposed to, correct this.’ That's the reason why our group has a different vibe, I guess.”

Planning a performance

For those Cama-i attendees who were impressed with Kassiglurmiut Yurartait last year, drum leader Nicholas says there’s a whole lot more in store.

“That three-day performance – those weren’t even like half the songs,” Nicholas says with a laugh. “Yeah, we’ve got more.”

As they build a program, Twitchell says it takes intentionality. Some songs get the whole room moving. Some are calmer and slower.

“The ones that everybody will rush down to the practice floor to take their position once you start singing, it's those kinds of songs, the ones that they like performing, we put them right at the beginning and at the end,” Twitchell says. “The middle is like, no offense to any songs, but you know, they're a little bit mellow sometimes, you know?”

When they get it right and everyone is in sync, Twitchell says that it feels like everyone is one.

“It feels like those drum honor beats are doing this,” Twitchell taps his chest in a rhythm. "Beating in sync with my heart, with my being at the moment, at least it is in my awareness. My awareness is telling me I'm doing that, I'm beating, the whole thing is the same. You're feeling it.”

For this year’s Cama-i, the group will once again be pulling out all the stops, blending power and humor for performances they hope bring the house down again.

KYUK’s Gabby Hiestand Salgado and MaryCait Dolan contributed to this reporting. 

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.