First Cama-i Experience

This weekend was the 2015 Cama-i Dance Festival. This is a festival that is held in Bethel every year and it primarily celebrates traditional Yupik dancing, though all dancing seems welcome. In the one full afternoon we spent there we saw an aerialist. Is that the word? A person that climbs up silk fabric and then does sort of acrobatic stuff? I don’t know.

I tried to look up some stuff to help me talk about Yupik dancing with more expertise and knowledge, but I still didn’t come away with a ton of information. What I do know is that it involves a drummer/s and singer/s that sit in the very back. Women stand in front of them and men usually squat in the very front. Generally some form of Native clothing is worn. Most of the people we saw wore Qaspeqs but we did see one group that wore what appeared to be traditional clothes from head to toe. Maklaks, furs, qaspeqs, headgear. They looked really warm on stage but only did one routine in the full garb before going down to qaspeqs and maklaks. Often the groups range in age from very small children to elders. The singer/drummer calls out something in Yupik and the group does the dance. It would almost remind you of cheerleading in that way. The singers are crazy impressive.

Toksook dancers

I imagine something was lost for us as we understand only the most rudimentary words in Yupik and much of the festival was held in Yupik. Other than quyana (thank you) and elitnaurviat (school) and doi (stop), we are pretty much at a loss.

This is a huge event for Bethel. I believe it is the biggest Yupik dancing event anywhere, which would make sense as Yupik denotes the group of Yupik speakers native to Southwestern Alaska (and the tip of Siberia). People come from all the villages to attend. Performers come from everywhere, including a Romanian dance company that comes every year. The town doesn’t really have the infrastructure for a flood of people so beginning on Friday morning you could see a steady stream of people walking from the airport toward the schools. Just a long line of people walking through town all day. Luckily the weather was nice that day. Unfortunately most of the people have since gotten stuck in Bethel due to two days of heavy snow. The big Anchorage flights can take off in snow and fog but the little puddle jumpers are stuck in just low clouds. Because we only have a few hotels most of the village performers stay in the schools. I came to work this morning to find a bunch of displaced people waiting on the school porch. They couldn’t stay inside because we are having school and if they go to the airport they are stuck until this weather clears up.

Yupik dancing is pretty calm and hypnotizing. As an observer I would say that there are some moves that make me think a story is being told, but I can’t say for sure. All the dancers either hold a sort of feather fan or wear gloves. Almost everything is done with the arms or a sort of swaying, It is not a dance that moves around the stage. On the other hand, while some groups were very calm and sedate others were very active. We recorded the Toksook Bay dancers because there were a couple of guys down front who were so into it you just couldn’t take your eyes off of them. I don’t know how they kept up that energy level for a half hour. My arm gets tired if I point at the board for a couple of minutes.

We didn’t spend nearly enough time at the festival but I know it also has other components like a Native Foods dinner. Sergio was working the door that night and people kept showing him the food. He had the 9 -11 pm shift or maybe he would have tried something. Or not. One of the dishes was berries in cream. Fish cream. Or seal oil. I think that might be a flavor you have to grow up with to fully appreciate. I have had a similar dish a few times that is a sort of ice cream made of berries and Crisco, but Sergio was told that you should use fish cream if you have it.

They also sold crafts like ivory jewelry, qaspeqs, walrus tooth jewelry, woven things, seal skin clothes, furs, etc. It’s pretty neat. We finally bought Rosalind a qaspeq of her own. On Wednesdays at her school they wear qaspeqs (I think I am missing an opportunity for a Mean Girls joke here, right?) but we had never found one before that would fit her. She needed one now because her school was going to perform at the festival. We didn’t strictly have to get her one, but I have taken her to a couple of things in Bethel where I thought shorts and a tshirt would be fine only to find people completely decked out in whatever the situation called for, i.e. ballet. I was going to be a prepared parent this time. Qaspeqs are made of cotton and usually are very bright and patterned. Rosalind immediately found one that was covered in Elsa from Frozen. From a distance it just looks nice and blue, but up close she is in Frozen heaven. The lady that made those is a genius. I think she was sold out the first night.

Rolo qaspeq

In the end the Kindergarten performance at Cama-i was pretty much a mess (as they are wont to be), but Rosalind looked cute doing it. She actually knew her dances and chants pretty well but when asked what they meant she said, “I have NO idea.”

rolo on stage at camai Rolo on stage at camai Rolo at Camai

We haven’t had a lot of opportunity to do many of the things people associate with Alaska but between Cama-i and the dog race I think we are making plenty of interesting memories.

Here is a pronunciation chart for you, but imagine these words with far more nuance than I can express.

Cama-i is pronounced Chum-Eye.

Quyana is pronounced Goy-Awna

Qaspeq is pronounced Kus-Puk.

Doi is pronounced just like you would expect.

Elitnaurviat is pronounced the heck if I know.

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