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The ‘Heart of the Drums’ still beats strong at the Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel

Cody Pequeño of Chevak leads the audience in a mass performance at the Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel on March 16, 2024.
MaryCait Dolan
Cody Pequeño of Chevak leads the audience in a mass performance as part of the Heart of the Drums event at the Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel on March 16, 2024.

As the gymnasium filled with the thumping of traditional cauyaq frame drums on the first night of the Cama-i Dance Festival, more cauyat were just beginning to take shape in a small classroom down the hall at Bethel Regional High School.

Only minutes after being given curved wooden rims, dowels, and an assortment of hand tools, nine students in the Yup’ik Drum Making Workshop got right to work.

Instructor Andrew Weaver, a program coordinator with the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, bounced between students as they cut and notched out their drum handles. They chiseled grooves into the rims where sinew could bind the drum head, made of an airplane fabric called ceconite, to the frame.

“Be sure to not have your hand in front of the chisel as I said. Have it behind, reduce the risk of injuries,” Weaver told the students.

Measuring tape was nowhere to be found, and each of the drums began to take on its own character with each step of the process.

“One of the best things about drum making is the less you know, the better,” Weaver said.

Weaver, whose family is from Alakanuk on the Yukon River, not only makes Yup’ik drums, but has performed in multiple yuraq groups. At this year’s Cama-i, he joined Ilaku’s Iñupiaq Dancers on stage without a drum in hand to show off his moves.

“Andrew was dancing yesterday. You were gettin’ it!” several students chimed in.

On the second day of the workshop, students ironed the opaque white drum heads to tighten them up and give them their distinctive sharply resonant sound. Again, Weaver said there is no exact science.

“You really just guess, but if you flick it and it gives up a kind of high, high pitch, then it's going to be good,” Weaver said. “Once you put the polyurethane on there it covers up all of the pores in the drum and it gives the drum its tone.”

With the drum heads tightly bound to the rims using multiple wrappings of sinew and the lacquer drying, the students had plenty of time to spare before their new drums were put to the test. Workshop students Christine LaCoy and Anne Kosacheff talked about the big show just around the corner.

“They said if you do this, it's two days and you have to commit to playing,” LaCoy said to Kosacheff.

“Let me tell you. That Heart of the Drums gets me every time. You're in there, and it’s dark, and the drums are all around you. It's like being in a thundercloud,” Kosacheff responded.

Krystin "Krys" Williams, who works as a mental health clinician in Bethel, tapped on her newly minted cauyaq.

“Ooohh, it sounds good. I’m so excited for the drums tonight,” Williams said.

While the last drums were drying, Weaver pulled out his own cauyaq, made in a traditional fashion predating the use of synthetic fabrics, stretched with the spotted inner layer of a walrus stomach. He shared a song he recently wrote about going rabbit hunting.

Bethel Elder Barb Atchak showed up to see how the course was coming along and talked about the importance of drumming.

“We usually say in our culture that drumming, the beat of the drums calms us down because that's the first sound we heard in our mom's womb,” Atchak said. “Another saying is drumming is healing. All the people that are here, and all the drumming, all the singing that's going on, they came here for a healing.”

Heart of the Drums

Just before the Heart of the Drums began, one of the dance leaders, Cody Pequeño, took the stage in the gymnasium in his bright blue qaspeq to address the audience.

“I want you guys to really use this time,” Pequeño said. “When we start singing, when we start drumming, give all your troubles, give all your sorrows. Shake it off like you’re shaking off snow.”

A beating of drums from the corridors of the gymnasium slowly built in intensity and the stage filled. Cama-i attendees cleared the top rows of the bleachers, where drummers climbed to ring the gym. Pequeño positioned himself to lead the dance, while 16 Elders beat large frame drums. Then they started into Tarvarnauramken, a Yup’ik blessing song from Nelson Island that has spread far and wide in recent years.

After two verses finished, the beat trailed off. But then the song revved back up again, each time stronger with more voices, with more drums.

Soon the stage filled to the brim with drums, the newest of them all played by students from the workshop that finished just hours earlier. It got louder still. The song faded away and the drums were roaring. The audience was whipped into a frenzy.

Toksook Bay Elder Charles Moses explained why Tarvarnauramken is close to his heart, and how the song describes the use of labrador tea, burned as part of the prayer.

“It's a song that was composed many years ago by my late aunt, Brentina Chanar. Back in the old days we used smoke as a form of prayer, tarvak, burning plants. Ayuq is one of them and that's what we use to flavor our tea,” Moses said. “Whenever seal hunters are going to go up they bless themselves with that smoke, themselves and their equipment, even their qayaq. They would slide that qayaq over that smoke.”

Moses said the words to the song are a blessing and a purification for successful harvests. But songs with similar themes are believed to go back centuries on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“[In the] first part we hunt in the Bering Strait for sea mammals,” Moses said. “And the first verse is telling, ‘Let me bless you with the blessings of the Bering Strait so that when you go out seal hunting,’ for example, you'll be successful. And then the second verse, it refers to the lands blessing behind you so that you will have success gathering.”

Backstage after the performance, new drum maker Williams beamed with excitement.

“It went better than I could have ever expected. There are no words for how incredible that experience was,” Williams said. “Everybody in harmony, that was amazing.”

By all accounts, in 2024, the Heart of the Drums at the Cama-i Dance Festival is still beating strong.

Taarvaarnauramken (*alternate spelling of song title)

Blessing Song

(translated by Aassanaaq Kairaiuak of Chefornak, AK)

Taarvaarnauramken ii ya yura a (2x)

Ellugarnauramken pikaniraniar


aa ara ara ia runa a a

Taarvaarnauramken ii ya yura a

Ellugarnauramken pikaniraniar


Aa ara ara ia runga a a 

Yuugiyama taarvaarnauramken

Akuluram katum taarvairtaitnekqa

Elluarlutenqa qamigaquniar 


Yuugiyama taavaarnauramken

Kinguqatgguq ca amkuut taarvaartaitnekqa

Elluarlutenqa makiraquniar 

Let me purify you (2x)

So you can pursue with Honor

*I bestow upon you

(smoke offering rising)

Let me purify you

So you can pursue with Honor

I bestow upon you

(smoke offering rising)


My people let me purify you

Mid Passage Ocean and its Gifts

With honor, you can hunt for seals


My people let me purify you

Up in the Land and its Gifts

With honor, you can pick greens

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