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Cama-i Festival dances back into Bethel this weekend

Kwethluk dancers at Cama-i on March 26, 2022.
Katie Basile
Kwethluk dancers at Cama-i on March 26, 2022.

The Cama-i Dance Festival returns to Bethel March 15 to March 17, with three days of song, dance, and community.

Linda Curda is a coordinator for the festival. She spoke with KYUK’s Gabby Hiestand Salgado during morning show Coffee@KYUK.

“We dance for 26.5 hours, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” Curda said. “We have Native crafts in the lobby. We also have community interest tables with folks like Calista, the university, Girl Scouts, all kinds of different information and educational opportunities. We also have a Native foods dinner on Saturday night that feeds over 600 to 700 folks in an evening, and it's just a celebration of everyone coming together. Song, dance, community.”

Dance groups travel to Cama-i from throughout Alaska and the Lower 48, in addition to an international Polynesian dance group. Event attendees will have chances to attend “Up Close and Personal” sessions with dance groups. Cama-i weekend will also include workshops on drum making, beading, and qaspeq making, the 2024 Miss Cama-i Pageant, and a qaspeq parade.

Curda said that Cama-i is about the broad umbrella of arts and how people engage in the arts, from drumming and dance to crafts to clothing.

“One of the things that I've noticed over the years is the change in the dance regalia,” Curda said. “And I would just invite everyone to really look at it carefully. You know, in the early years people would get up and they would have their clothes on and maybe have just cloth mittens or gloves, you know, and then within a year or two, we started to see dance fans across. The men's dance fans didn't come for a while, then folks started all wearing qaspeqs. Then we had the mukluks. Then now, as you all have seen, we have matching qaspeqs and also incredible headdresses. And now the belts and the beads that are coming."

She continued: “And what's fun is [to] talk to someone, ask them who made it. And there's the connection to family, aunties, grandmothers, there's a real reaching into the history of the family and their artwork, of beading and so forth.”

Nicholai Joekay is a member of the Cama-i festival committee. Each year, the committee selects a theme for the festival, which adorns the plaques given to Elders honored at the festival and serves as a sort of branding for the event.

“The theme that the committee came up with is ‘Yuraq Paiciutekaput’ and that’s Yup’ik for ‘Dance is our legacy,’” Joekay said. “We've woven that word ‘legacy,’ things that you pass down from generation to generation, which is something very, the way it's integral in the culture, in all of the Indigenous cultures where we pass down knowledge and wisdom and, and everything that goes with it, because it's not just dance. It's not just storytelling that we're seeing on stage. It's all of the things that have been passed down from generation to generation.”

Doors open at Bethel Regional High School for the first festival event, the lighting of the Cama-i flame, at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, March 15.

Tickets for the event are $10 per day or $25 for a three-day pass. Elders and children under 4 can attend for free, and students can buy discounted tickets.

Curda said that they’ll be accepting donations of Native foods for the dinner on the evening of Saturday, March 16. For those interested in donating Native foods for the dinner on Saturday, Curda said that food can be dropped off starting Saturday morning.

“Soup, stews, akutaq, whatever they might choose to make, and those will be brought to the high school kitchen on Saturday after 10 a.m.,” Curda said. “You can come to the back door of the kitchen. And please label your bowl or container with your name and phone number and we'll make sure to get them returned to you.”

The 2024 Cama-i Dance Festival schedule.
SouthWest Alaska Arts Group
The 2024 Cama-i Dance Festival schedule.

Listen to the full interview with Linda Curda and Nicholai Joekay from Coffee@KYUK here.

Corrected: March 15, 2024 at 9:50 AM AKDT
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Linda Curda's name.
Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.