In the 1980s, a gathering of a few traditional village dance groups in Bethel started what may now be the world's largest gathering of Alaska Native dancers: the Cama-i Dance Festival. The elders that kept the drums pounding through the generations remain the roots of this tradition, and in less than two weeks the drums will beat again. KYUK sat down with two of the Cama-i organizers to discuss how this year’s festival honors its foundation.
The Festival seems to grow stronger every year, as longtime coordinator Linda Curda remembers well.
“Originally people would just dance in their t-shirts and maybe have dance fans," Curda said. "And then we had gloves, and now we have matching qaspeqs, and everyone, men and women, have fans, mukluks, and then the headdresses, the most incredible, beaded headdresses.”
This year, for the first time, Cama-i is dedicated to a group of elders who, together, represent the continuum of dance in their village. For decades it has been customary to find a departed elder to dedicate the festival to, but when organizers turned to Kasigluk to name someone, the tundra village with a strong dancing tradition named six: Kakgailnguq Kalila Slim, Asgill’aq Nellie Slim, Uqsungiarr Wassillie Berlin Sr., Kaligtuq Wassillie Nicholas, Nassaq'aq Alexy Nicholas, and Uqillaq Pavilla Nicholas.
“They are yuraq in Kasigluk,” Curda said.
The three-day festival begins on March 16 at the Bethel Regional High School gym. As the host, Bethel dancers will take the stage first to welcome their guests. The lineup includes local and regional groups, as well as past favorites from out of town like the Running Thunder Cree Dancers from Canada and the NANDA acrobaticalists. In the NANDA act, two sets of men on opposite sides of the stage stand on one another’s shoulders and juggle objects across the room.
“They’re just amazing,” Curda said, laughing.
Cama-i celebrates dance from around the world. For the first time it will welcome Pacific Bloom, a Polynesian group.
Twenty-one groups will perform. On the second day they’ll all come together for the Heart of the Drums, a ceremony that goes well with this year's Cama-i theme: "Caugyat Tupagtelarait Nauviput, Drums Awaken Our Roots.” During the ceremony, drummers from all the dance groups stand on the top row of the bleachers, circling the crowd, and in unison begin to beat their drums, growing louder and louder.
“When you are watching that, you will forget there is a world out there," said Cama-i facilitator Peter Atchak. "Healing happens.”
Cama-i means “handshake” in Yup’ik and is said as a warm welcome. The festival celebrates community and tradition. It’s multi-generational, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural. To everyone it says, "Cama-i."
Correction: The Shageluk Dancers from the Yukon are no longer able to travel to the festival.