Bethel organizers prepare for the 2017 Cama’i Dance Festival

Byron Nicholai sings and drums at the 2016 Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel. (Photo by Laura Kraegel, KNOM – Nome)

The 2017 Cama’i Dance Festival begins tomorrow at the Bethel Regional High School. The weekend-long cultural celebration marks the largest annual gathering of Alaska Native dance in the world.

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Peter Atchek has been helping organize Cama’i for more than a decade.

“This year’s theme is Nunaniryuum Nalliini, meaning during The Time of Joy,” Atchek said. “It is the opposite of mourning. Cama’i is a celebration.”

Atchek then recited in Yup’ik: “There’s a lot going on during Cama’i. It’s not only about dance. We have a lot of fun, and we’re going to do that this year.”


Linda Curda has been co-coordinating the Cama’i Festival for 25 years. She says they have a new group from Texas.


“Danza Matachin Pavo Real group. That is a Mexican Indian dance group. We’re excited we have a Cree Indian group out of Canada.  Pamyua, we haven’t had them here for many, many years.”

Along with the pioneering Alaska-Greenland band Pamyua, there will also be regional groups performing from places like Alukanuk, Chevak, and Mountain Village.

Soon after the festival begins Friday evening, Cama’i will honor Raphael and Vivian Jimmy of Mountain Village as Living Treasures. Peter Atchek says the honor is a way for the community to say thank you to the cultural bearers who’ve kept Yup’ik dancing alive.

“Raphael and Vivian represent the age that many of us didn’t see, during the time when Western civilization hadn’t come into our area yet, and they have retained a lot of what used to be the traditional type of dancing, and they practice that with their group now,” Atchek said. “And they carry on the tradition like it was before any interruption or touch from Western civilization or anywhere else in the world.”

When honoring the Living Treasures, the community also remembers the Living Treasures who’ve been honored before them. Like last year’s David Boyscout of Chevak, who died last week of natural causes at the age of 93.

Atchek also remembers Boyscout fondly.

“Ever since I was a toddler, he was one of the drummers on the stage,” Atchek said. “Whenever we had Eskimo dancing, he was always there. He belonged to the Traditional Councils of the village. He was a true leader of our people.”

The following day of the Festival, Saturday, a tradition is being revived after more than a decade— the Fur Fashion Show. Linda Curda got the idea after the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim University Campus started a fur parka sewing class, and students asked to share their work.

“And I said, we can’t just share it, we have to create the Fur Fashion Show again,” Curda said. “So yes, it’s been since 2005.”

Anyone wearing any fur or other traditional clothing can take part. Just show up at 5:30 Saturday night. “Go-time” is at 6 p.m. Curda calls the show a parade of history, tradition, and skill.

Next up at 7:45 p.m. is Peter Atchek’s favorite moment of the weekend—the Heart of the Drums. When all the drummers at the festival climb to the top of the bleachers in the Bethel Regional High School gym, circling the audience, and begin to beat in unison.

“It’s usually a very powerful time of Cama’i where everybody participates,” Atchek said.

“I do believe that as the drum is beating and the song is being sung, that all of our hearts truly get in unison, and your bodies share with one another, and we all become the drum ourselves,” Curda said.”

“We’ve had people come up to us afterwards and say I didn’t expect that,” Atchek said. “Some of them come with their daily challenges, and they’re heavy laden, and then say I no longer feel like that, I no longer feel heavy laden, some healing happened during the Heart of the Drums.”

Also on Saturday are free dental screenings from the Yukon Kuskokwim Dental Clinic, a workshop on Yup’ik regalia, and the Native Foods Dinner. Help is needed for the meal. Throughout it all, they’ll be dancing– beginning Friday evening and stretching over three days of celebration, remembrance, and culture into Sunday night.