Saturday, April 07, 2007

Cama-i Dance Festival

In the language of the Yupik Eskimo people, the word “cama-i” (pronounced chew-MY) means “Welcome!”. And that is exactly what people are when they come to Bethel for the annual Cama-i Dance Festival held in early spring. The festival began in the early 1990s, and is a celebration of Eskimo dancing.

The 2007 festival was held this past weekend, and was particularly anticipated this year, as it had to be cancelled all together last year. The festival is held at Bethel Regional High School, which was under repair last year; there is no alternate facility large enough to house it. Bethel does not have a civic center or auditorium.

Note: I have written in a previous post about the basics of Eskimo dancing and how it is performed. Click here for that description and more photos.

Dance groups from a dozen or so villages participate by invitation; with 58 villages in our region, every village can’t send a dance group every year. The invitations rotate such that any one village is invited to participate every three to four years. In addition to the traditional Eskimo dancing common to this area, a few groups from other parts of Alaska and other parts of the world are also invited.

This year’s performers included a Tlingit group from southeast Alaska, a Hawaiian group, and a contemporary dance company from Phoenix, Arizona. The festival runs for three days and each dance group gives two or three performances, each thirty minutes long.

The festival is about more than dancing; it is a celebration of Yupik culture. Each year two individuals are chosen to be honored as Living Legends. These are usually elders who have made a significant contribution to the preservation of the culture. Often they are people who have been involved in bringing the tradition of Eskimo dancing back from its near-extinction.

When the Catholic and Protestant missionaries came to Alaska to convert the Native people to Christianity in the mid to late 19th century, they tried to destroy Eskimo dancing. They preached that it was worshipping the devil, that it was evil, and that people must not do it. In the hundred years from the 1860s to the 1960s, knowledge of the tradition was nearly extinguished; the small practice that continued was kept secret, and people felt guilty about doing it.

The 1970s brought a resurgence of pride in traditional Yupik culture and a return to some of the practices of the old ways. The few elders who still held the knowledge of Eskimo dancing worked successfully to reestablish it as a vibrant part of the culture. Today, nearly every village in southwest Alaska has an Eskimo dance group that practices together regularly, and hopes each year to be invited to Cama-i.

Despite the success of bringing back this great tradition, the effects of the teachings of the early missionaries still lingers. Once I asked an elder in Pilot Station if she liked to go Eskimo dancing, and she said, “No. I’m Catholic. I grew up being taught by the priests that it was evil and wrong. Since then the church has apologized for teaching us that, and said it is ok, but I still can’t do it.” Early teachings make deep impressions.

Concurrent with the dance performances occurring in the high school gymnasium is a huge craft fair held in the school lobby. Artists and craftspeople from all over the Delta come to Bethel for Cama-i with a winter’s worth of beautiful creations to sell. There is table after table laden with beadwork, carved ivory (walrus tusk), baskets of all shapes and sizes, fur hats and boots and mittens, handmade Eskimo dolls, masks, quilts, knitted socks, and trinkets of all sorts. It is by far the biggest craft fair of the year, and a great time to shop.

Also concurrent with the afternoon dance performances, there are “up close and personal” workshops held in nearby classrooms. A few of the more popular and/or exotic of the visiting dance groups hold one-hour workshops in which they talk about their particular dance tradition and get the workshop attendees on their feet and moving to participate. The workshops are a chance to meet some of the dancers individually and learn more about their culture and how dance is a part of it.

On Saturday evening of the weekend-long festival there is a Fur Fashion Show onstage to start the evening festivities. Anyone can sign up for it; you simply bring your finest fur garments and parade across the stage in them. The master or mistress of ceremonies asks each model their name, where they are from, and the history of the garment they are wearing—who made it, when, and for whom. There are incredibly beautiful parkas, mukluks, hats, even sealskin pants displayed at the fashion show.

Also on Saturday evening there is a Traditional Feast. This is a potluck effort by the people of Bethel to serve our visitors as many foods as possible from the traditional Native diet. There will be dishes made with moose, caribou, beaver, muskrat, porcupine, goose, swan, tundra vegetables and berries. And there will be many kinds of agutak (Eskimo ice cream, a concoction made of Crisco, sugar, berries and boiled whitefish) for dessert.

The Cama-i Dance Festival is an exciting three days for the many people who come to Bethel to dance and to watch. It is a celebration of Yupik culture that leaves everyone feeling energized and happy. It is a great way to celebrate the end of winter.

For more photos and video clips of this year’s festival, visit the Bethel Arts website at

All photos by Peter G. Ashman, with great thanks from The Tundra PA.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

beautiful relay..
well experienced and well written..
you are not going to be forgotten.. not for a long time..

Sunday, April 08, 2007 12:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hope I did it right, not a blogger, but i do read you.. this last post.. you do it well, very well..

Sunday, April 08, 2007 12:58:00 AM  
Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

Wow. Once again,

Sunday, April 08, 2007 7:22:00 AM  
Blogger Body Soul Spirit said...

I love the faces of the children. How important for them to have this cultural connection.

Sunday, April 08, 2007 11:27:00 AM  
Blogger Kyle said...

great pics, TPA!ma

Monday, April 09, 2007 5:08:00 AM  
Blogger Jill said...

I love your slices of life.

I haven't commented in a while, so I just wanted to say thanks for sharing.

Monday, April 09, 2007 1:45:00 PM  
Blogger Dianne G said...

Thank you SO MUCH for sharing life in Bethel. I feel blessed that I found you. Such a beautifully spirited site. I have been a regular reader for a couple months. I hope you have a long career both as a PA and a writer. (I am an ultrasound tech in TN who writes sporatically)

Monday, April 16, 2007 5:51:00 AM  
Anonymous said...

I read so much useful data above!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011 11:28:00 PM  

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