Friday, March 28, 2008

Time for Cama-i

It is time once again for one of Bethel’s most cherished annual events, the Cama-i Dance Festival. For the next three days, beginning at 5 pm today, the gymnasium of the high school will reverberate with the sounds of many drums, stomping feet and audience applause as Eskimo dance groups from all over the delta and invited guests from Outside Alaska take the stage to perform. It is a celebration of Yupik culture, and the human love of dancing. It is also our landmark of spring, but at 14 below zero this morning, it doesn't feel very spring-like outside just yet.

Eskimo dancing is a unique and sometimes formalized expression of Yupik culture. It can be a way of telling stories and entertaining, as well as a form of prayer. I have written a more detailed description of Eskimo dancing here, and of Cama-i Dance Festival here. Both with lots of great photos, especially Peter Ashman’s beautiful images from last year’s Cama-i (with thanks to him, once again, for allowing me to post them).

This year’s festival includes some of my favorite performers. I am especially glad for an opportunity to hear the group Pamyua, four singers who perform “acapella harmonies blending traditional Inuit and Yup’ik songs with gospel and jazz arrangements.” (From the cover of their CD “mengluni”, which means “the beginning”) They have a website at for more info. They often come to Cama-i, but not every year. I haven’t seen them for about three years.

Also exciting to see will be the Scammon Bay Dancers with their star, octogenarian-going-on-nonagenarian Maryann Sundown, a tiny elder with a twinkle in her eye and an energy to her dance that belies her many winters and the poor condition of her stooped back. I am so hoping she will dance her famed Mosquito Dance, which I have often heard of but never seen.

For the first time in quite a few years, the dancers from the village of Pilot Station, for whom I have been the assigned health care provider for nearly nine years, will be coming. It was on a village trip to Pilot Station that I was invited to join in the dancing and taught how to do it; it was an amazing experience. I look forward to seeing the new and old dances that my teachers will perform.

Other villages from the Y-K Delta who will send their dancers include Chevak, Kasigluk, Hooper Bay, and several groups from Bethel. Eskimo dancing is taught in the elementary schools here in Bethel, and tomorrow afternoon will offer the kindergarten through sixth grade classes time on the stage to perform their dances. There will also be a Sioux hoop dancer, a group of Maori dancers, a Native storyteller and singer, modern dance groups, dancers from other parts of Alaska, and a performance by the Bethel Hand Bell Choir.

There will be a huge craft fair going on in the lobby of the high school while all the performances are being held in the gym. The best craftspeople and artisans from all over the delta come to Cama-i to sell their work; it is the very best time to shop for Native crafts. Everything from huge carved ivory (walrus) tusks to whimsical t-shirts with photos of Bethel’s uniquely painted garbage dumpsters on them will be available on table after table of merchandise. It is an amazing opportunity to see the variety of crafts that spring from the Yupik culture.

On Saturday evening there will be a Native Foods Dinner cooked up by the citizens of Bethel; dishes usually include moose, caribou, beaver, swan, goose, porcupine, muskrat, maybe even some black bear. And of course, many kinds of agutak, otherwise known as Eskimo ice cream, made from Crisco, sugar, many kinds of tundra-grown berries, and often boiled white fish or mashed potatoes for texture. Though it sounds…interesting…it can be surprisingly good. Blueberry agutak with white fish is my all-time favorite.

The dinner is served (free) first to Elders, then to Dancers, and only then to the general public—until the food runs out. Not qualifying for the first two groups, and not being willing to stand in line for an hour or more to be first in the last group, I’ve never gotten more than a few tailings from the dinner. Those who do better usually exit the cafeteria sucking their teeth and looking very satisfied.

There will be a Mr. and Miss Cama-i pageant held on Saturday afternoon, with the winners announced on Saturday evening. Entrants must be at least 18 years old, and neither married or have children (criteria which are exclusionary to a surprising degree). I believe they receive scholarships, but I’m not sure about that.

Traditionally there has been a fur fashion show on Saturday evening as well, but I don’t see it mentioned in this year’s program. In some years there has been a room set aside to honor a particular skinsewer, with as many as possible of her fur garments collected and displayed. One year the honoree was Lucy Beaver, a Bethel resident whose face became famous in the well-known photo by Myron Rosenberg, which I included in a post here. Lucy made my mukluks, my parka’s wolf-and-wolverine fur ruff, and my arctic fox molakai (hat with a tail), and I contributed them to the display that year. I hope the fur fashion show’s omission from the program is an oversight, and not an indicator that we won’t have one this year.

The Festival begins at 5 pm today and will run until midnight; Saturday will go from noon until midnight and Sunday will start at noon and finish at 9 pm. It promises to be an exciting few days in celebration of Yupik culture.

The posters were too big to scan, so I photographed them, which is why they are not perfect (perspective, edges). Both posters are for this year.

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Blogger Laura said...

I really wish I was there to see it. It sounds awesome!! Thanks for visiting my new blog and saying hello. I wish Forks had worked out...


Onward and upward!!!

Saturday, March 29, 2008 1:43:00 PM  

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