At the last minute, Chefornak dancers canceled their appearance at last year’s Cama-i Dance Festival when Tribal Council President and drummer Walter Lewis died suddenly in a snowmachine accident. This year, Cama-i dedicated the gathering to Lewis’ memory.
Lewis held many roles in Chefornak besides Tribal Council President and Yuraq drummer.
"I guess he was all the things in the village. A lot of people looked up to him," said Julia Lewis, his wife, who is also part of the Caputnguarmiut Yurartait from Chefornak.
Family and members of the Alaska National Guard spoke in English and Yugtun during the ceremony dedicating this year’s Cama-i festival to Walter Lewis. Julia accepted a plaque as their daughter, Jessica, and grandson stood behind her on the stage at the Bethel Regional High School. Julia, Walter’s sister Martha Lewis White, and Jessica all danced on stage to his favorite Yuraq songs, and new ones composed to honor his life.
Julia said that his favorite Yuraq songs were "the song that’s says something about a nest, and the other one; I think the song that was made of my relatives from Nelson Island that was his first dance catch."
She asked her cousin and Walter’s nephew, Ossie Kairaiuak from the Inuit musical group Pamuya, to compose a song for Walter. Kairaiuak crafted two songs: one dedicated to Walter’s grandson’s first caribou hunting catch, and the other to Walter’s granddaughter’s first berry picking trip.
"I made the song, the caribou hunting song by snowmachine, in his memory as well as his son. And then for the berry picking one, I generalize it, but I put words in it that I am following the footsteps of my ancestor’s tracks," Kairaiuak said.
Family members say that while Walter Lewis is no longer with them, they expect him to watch them dance to his favorite songs. Each one had something special to say to him:
Julia Lewis: I wish you were here. That’s it.
Jessica Lewis-Nicori: He taught us well. I’m trying to be quiet as he was.
Martha Lewis White: I think he would have been happy dancing, and maybe he will be with us in the spirit.
Ossie Kairaiuak: I hope he’s in the other world enjoying his parents, his ancestors, and I hope I was able to do justice for him by remembering him through his life in my own little way from what I know of him.