YOU HAVEN’T LIVED UNTIL you’ve seen a Scammon Bay grandma dance the Yupik Macarena. And the only place you’re going to see that is in Bethel in April at the Cama’i Fest. Cama’i, I’m told, means hello in Yupik. Some people say it means a warm hello. Myself, after attending the twelfth annual Cama’i Dance Festival, I think it means a great big hug. Bethel is a community of seven thousand, forty miles up the Kuskokwim River on the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta. It’s an hour by jet west of Anchorage, eighty miles east of the Bering Sea and on a clear day on the flight in you can see Siberia if you squint.
Bethel was founded in 1885 by Moravian missionaries who banned Yupik dancing for their converts, so it’s only poetic justice that today the town hosts the biggest festival of Alaska Native dance there is, a celebration of the art that lasts for three days and features dancers from many of the fifty-six villages in the region and from other Alaska regions, as well as groups like the Stanford University Steppers and the Ballet Folklorico from Sonora, Mexico. Like all events of any importance in the Alaska Bush, this one is held in local high school gym, with bleachers and metal folding chairs that take you right back to the ninth grade, or take your butt there. Nobody cares; this isn’t theater as much as it is family.
It’s hard to describe Alaska Native dancing, but it is even harder to keep a grin off your face while trying to do so and it’s impossible when you’re watching it. The dancers bounce in place to the single, repetitive beat of as many as ten Native drums, while hands wield dance fans trimmed with fur and feathers in intricate, synchronized movements, and feet wearing mukluks try to keep up.
“Basically,” singer/composer Ossie Kairaiuak of the dance group Pamyua says, “we are telling a story. The singers tell it verbally and the dancers paint pictures of it.” These are stories of the Yupik lifestyle, Ossie says, who was born in Chefornak, as well as “things you have experienced personally.” He described one song he wrote when he “got tired of looking at my sleepy students” in a class he was teaching. Pamyua sang “Sleepy Song” that evening in performance and the troupe had the audience in hysterics as Ossie chastised his sleepy “students.”
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.