One of the most significant films about Yup’ik culture has been digitally restored. The Drums of Winter is an award-winning documentary shot in Emmonak 40 years ago that tells the story of Yup’ik dancing and potlatching between Emmonak and Alakanuk. After three years of restoration work, it’s now being shown around the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta.
Four decades after it was made, The Drums of Winter is considered a significant contribution to American culture and has a home in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
But at the time it was produced, the film was an experiment.
“We set out to make films that we called ‘community collaborative films,’” Len Kamerling said. Kamerling, in 1977 along with Sarah Elder, wanted to make films in a new way: by involving the community in shaping the work. Elder, who had lived in Emmonak as a teacher, wanted to work with Kamerling to make a documentary with no narrator, no English voiceovers over the Yup’ik, no one interpreting the film for the audience.
It was considered a radical idea at the time. They’d show up with no script, no idea of the story. Just cameras and open eyes.
“And one door after another opened,” Kamerling said. “And we were brought into that world of the qasiq and the dance.”
The qasiq is the men’s house in traditional Yup’ik villages.
What they captured in the film is considered authentic and relevant, even 40 years later. Retired University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus professor Cecelia Martz said that she would regularly show the film in her Cross Cultural and Anthropology classes.
“Because they presented a truer picture of what life was like in the villages than books. Because a lot of us are visual learners, and they learned a lot from those films,” Martz said.
The digital restoration of The Drums of Winter has added new dimensions to the film. Co-producer and director Len Kamerling said that digitization has deepened the colors and brought light where there were shadows.
“Walkie Charles, who was our main language advisor and coordinator, he’s from Emmonak,” Kamerling said. “And when we showed a scene in the qasiq, what used to be dark shadow now was illuminated, and he could see his father there, his father who had passed away. So that was a really wonderful thing.”
When they showed the film in the Yukon village last week, most people in the audience could see now-deceased relatives in the film. One of the young men in the film is now a dance instructor in Emmonak. Everyone watching was connected to what they were watching.
“People mostly talked about the sense of continuity that the film gives them, of being able to look back on their relatives, on their culture at that time and what can be learned from it and the importance of having that sense of continuity. And I think the young dancers were very taken with that as well,” Kamerling said.
Professor Martz, who grew up in Chevak, said that the film also shows how dance in the region has evolved.
“For instance, like at the Cama’i Festival, you see a whole bunch of people on the stage,” Martz said. “At that time that I was growing up, only certain groups of people were designated a song and a dance. So you might have five or six people who could do that particular dance. Maybe if you were lucky you’d dance twice.”
What people are singing and dancing about has also changed since the film was made. Now, Martz said you’re as likely to watch a dance about basketball or Anchorage traffic as a song from the past.
But what has not changed is that people are still dancing. In the film, some worried that Yup’ik dancing was going to disappear with the younger generation. But as that generations grew up, a Yup’ik dance renaissance began sweeping the YK Delta and continues to this day. The Drums of Winter captures a moment of that long tradition for a future generation that’s carried it on.