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At Cama-i, Finding “Common Humanity” Through the Drum

Toksook Bay Dancers, Cama-i 2016
Byron Nicholai (center) and the Toksook Bay Traditional Dancers perform at the 2016 Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel, Alaska. Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM.

Strength, resilience, unity, and music amid great sorrow and challenge: that was the message of one of Western Alaska’s most beloved annual cultural gatherings, the 2016 Cama-i (chuh-MY) Dance Festival.

Through your support, KNOM volunteers Laura Kraegel and Maddie Winchester traveled in early April to Bethel, a hub city of Southwest Alaska, to cover this unifying, special event, a gathering that brings together practitioners of Alaska Native culture from throughout the state, and even from the Lower 48, to sing, dance, and drum together. It is truly one of the brightest annual highlights of life in rural Alaska, a time when the cultural traditions KNOM has celebrated since 1971 are on vibrant display.

Masked dancer, Nunamta Yup’ik Singers and Dancers, Cama-i 2016
A masked dancer performs with the Nunamta Yup’ik Singers and Dancers. Photo: Maddie Winchester, KNOM.

The theme of the 2016 Cama-i Festival was, in the Alaska Native language of Yup’ik, “Nunalgutkellriit Piniutiit Cauyakun,” or “Community Strength Through Drumming.” As KNOM reported, such community strength has been greatly needed in rural Alaska lately, especially in the wake of four suicides within the span of two weeks in the southwestern Alaska community of Hooper Bay. Cama-i 2016 festival organizer Linda Curda explained, “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.” And the vehicle of that support, as it has been so many times in the past, was music — from different music ensembles, from different corners of the world, in different languages, but united through the rhythms of the traditional, Alaska Native drum.

Barrow Dance Group, Cama-i 2016
Drummers and singers perform from the Barrow Dance Group. Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM.

Over a long weekend of celebration at the Bethel Regional High School, dozens of ensembles performed individually — and, on Saturday night, came together for the capstone event, the Heart of the Drums, in which the Bethel gym was filled with performers sounding their drums in unison. Even beyond language and dance style, Curda told KNOM, their drumming is “that common connection, that common heartbeat… It’s our common humanity.”

Such connections, as we reported, transcend generations. Preserving cultural lineage and passing on knowledge from one generation to the next is a cherished ideal within the communities of our region. Looking to local elders as revered teachers and guides is at the core of Alaska Native culture, and it was certainly given a place of special prominence in this year’s festival. A dance ensemble of Hooper Bay youth, for example, was invited to join the community’s more experienced colleagues on stage. As Hooper Bay dance instructor Wilma Bell-Joe described, “It’s pretty cool to walk in the footsteps of an ancestor.”

Nunamta Yup’ik Singers and Dancers, Cama-i 2016
Drummers from the Nunamta Yup’ik Singers and Dancers. Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM.

Through your support, we brought the story of this special event — and its beloved example of the spirit, culture, and “common humanity” of our incredible region — to our listeners this year. Thanks so much for making it possible, and to learn more about the 2016 Cama-i Festival, we encourage you to explore our news story and photo retrospective on the event. (Photos above and below: snapshots of the incredible performances in Bethel.)

Nunamta Yup’ik Singers and Dancers, Cama-i 2016
One performer leads the Nunamta Yup’ik Singers and Dancers at the 2016 Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel. Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM.

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We acknowledge that KNOM Radio Mission is located on the customary lands of Indigenous peoples. 

Based in the Bering Strait region, KNOM broadcasts throughout the homelands of the Iñupiaq, Siberian Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Yup’ik peoples.