BETHEL, Alaska — Between low snow, tight finances, and a series of suicides, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has had a hard year. That’s according to organizers of the 2016 Cama-i Dance Festival, which ended Sunday night in Bethel.
Their goal for this year’s festival was to recognize the resilience of Y-K communities and get people drumming, dancing, and celebrating.
“You can rise above what’s going in your life,” said Peter Atchak. “You just have to work together and be together.”
Atchak is an emcee and organizer of the 2016 Cama-i Dance Festival. He said this year’s theme was all about honoring resilience: “Nunalgutkellriit Piniutiit Cauyakun. Community Strength Through Drumming.”
Community strength has been critical in the Delta, according to Atchak’s fellow organizer Linda Curda. She said the entire region has experienced tough times lately, but one community in particular inspired the theme, after suffering four suicides in about two weeks last fall.
“This past year, Hooper Bay has experienced just tragedy,” said Curda. “So we looked at some of the issues, and what did we want to do? We wanted to say that this festival is about the strength of who we are. We wanted to really nurture that, support it, and applaud it.”
Wilma Bell-Joe is from Hooper Bay, and she said the community is still grieving.
“It was a big hurt, but we’re trying to go back,” she said.
That’s back to celebrating the good things, without forgetting what happened. Bell-Joe works with the youth dance group in Hooper Bay. She said her dancers learn about Yup’ik values and healthy living as part of practice.
The young performers were invited to join the Hooper Bay Traditional Dancers at Cama-i this year. While the adults and elders missed the festival due to poor weather in Hooper Bay, Bell-Joe said her group got out in time and was thrilled to take the stage.
“To hear that the Traditional Dancers included them, that totally tickled everybody,” she said. “They’re like, ‘We’re actually doing what our ancestors did!’ It’s pretty cool to walk in the footsteps of an ancestor.”
During the three-day celebration at the Bethel Regional High School, more than two-dozen groups took turns performing. In addition to the Hooper Bay dancers, the festival featured groups from across the Y-K Delta, the state of Alaska, and the Lower 48 — from Anchorage and the Aleutians to Chevak and California.
All of the groups came together on Saturday night for the Heart of the Drums. The performance had drummers wrap around the gym and beat their instruments in unison.
Curda said the Heart of the Drums began 15 years ago to celebrate the passion and tradition shared by all the performers and people in attendance.
“At Cama-i, we have many different languages and many different dance styles,” said Curda. “But drumming is just that common connection — that common heartbeat. It’s our common humanity and heartbeat.”
Cama-i organizers also recognized invididuals for their contributions to the community. The festival was dedicated to the late Paul John of Toksook Bay for his efforts to keep Yup’ik dancing and drumming alive in the Delta.
Chevak’s David Boyscout won the Living Treasure Award for influential elders. The 91-year-old teaches ancient Cup’ik dances to the youth, and he accepted his award from Chevak over a live video feed.
A new Miss Cama-i was also crowned. Olivia Shields of Toksook Bay won the cultural pageant and will represent the Delta at this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives Convention and World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.