Friday begins the cultural explosion of the Cama-i Dance Festival. The dancing begins this evening at 5 p.m. at Bethel Regional High School and will last through the weekend until late Sunday night. Dance groups from across the region, the state, and the lower 48 are gathering to share dance, culture, tradition, and community. Across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, dancers are getting ready to take the stage.
“I’ve had more people say, ‘I’m so busy! I’m just sewing, sewing, sewing,’” said Cama-i co-coordinator Linda Curda. The regional dance festival has propelled a renaissance in the regalia worn by performers.
“Qaspeqs, headdresses, both the beaded and the fur headdresses, mukluks and new dance fans, and the leather belts,” Curda listed.
This year, Cama-i is celebrating its 30-year anniversary.
“Yeah, 30 or 31," Curda said. “It all depends on how you count.”
Each year, planning for the event begins by choosing a theme.
“When you get goosebumps, you know that it’s the right theme,” Curda explained.
And this year’s theme did just that: “Together We Dance As One.”
“And that," Curda said, "has resonated with people in ways that I didn’t know would happen."
Take the logo, for example. It’s carved by Bethel artist Jerry Lieb. It’s a spirit mask, representing the man who brought the region’s tribes together after the division and violence of the Bow and Arrow Wars. The man told the tribes “to put down the bow and arrows and to pick up the drum and dance."
This year the event will include the Chefornak Dancers. The group cancelled their trip last year after Tribal Council President and Elder drummer Walter Lewis died in a snowmachine accident a few days before the festival. This year, Cama-i will be dedicated to Walter Lewis and his contributions to dance.
“His family will be here [and] his wife. Ossi Kairaiuak, who is with Pamyua, has written some original music to honor Walter Lewis," Curda said.
That performance is Friday at 8:30 p.m. Soon after, another group which has not been at the festival for over a decade will dance on the Cama-i stage. The Scammon Bay Dancers are returning for the first time since their famous and charismatic leader Maryann Sundown passed away 12 years ago.
“We used to call her ‘The Dance Diva of the Delta,'” remembered Curda.
Sundown used dance as entertainment, as a way to make people laugh. She filled rooms with delight, captivating audiences with her comedic moves and expressive style.
Another regional group this year is the Kwethluk dancers.
“And I reached out to Olga Uttereyuk. She started to talk about what dance meant to her and their community, and she told the story of Joe Ayagarak, from Bethel, going to Kwethluk in 1984 and reviving dancing for Kwethluk," Curda shared. "And they haven’t stopped dancing since then.”
Joe Ayagarak Jr. is from Chevak, and has lived in Bethel a long time, where he’s led various dance groups. His current group is one of the largest in the region, with more than 40 people. This year, he’s being honored as Cama-i’s “Living Treasure.”
“Living in Bethel, he really has become the Bethel holder of song and drumming and dance,” Curda described.
Other regional groups this year are Kalskag and Tuluksak. Toksook Bay singer and drummer Byron Nicolai from “I am Yup’ik” will perform. Many Bethel groups will also be dancing, including the UAF Kuskokwim Campus Dancers. Last year, beloved campus director Mary Pete died. In her honor, the dancers will be performing a traditional song from Mary Pete’s community of Stebbins.
Beyond dancing, there will be other Cama-i favorites like vendors selling crafts, the Heart of the Drums, the Fur Fashion Show, and the Native Foods Dinner.
The dinner serves about 700 people every year, starting with Elders, moving to dancers, and then to the public. To make a donation, bring your Native food to the Lower Kuskokwim School District office on Saturday in a dish with your name on it. Dinner starts at 4 p.m.