Cama-i Celebrates Tradition For All Generations

The Cama-i festival packed the Bethel Regional High School gym for a weekend of dancing, singing, and celebrating life in the YK Delta.

Traditional and modern dance groups from the YK Delta and native performers from across the country came to Bethel to express in song and dance this year’s timeless theme: Generations Celebrating Through Dance.

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The Nelson Island dancers of Tooksook Bay have performers from 4th through 12 grade. Senior Deanna Jimmie says its dance is a way to keep their culture vibrant.

“It’s really important to keep our culture going. We’ve seen other villages lose their culture and language. So we try to speak to them in Yupik, encourage them to talk in Yupik, because we don’t want to lose our culture and language,” said Jimmie.

Junior Byron Nicholoai says the young dancers are powerful. Their inspiration and guidance comes from their elders.

“Every Friday an elder comes to the school talks about the Yup’ik culture and life, in Yup’ik and after that we have a dance, so they play a big role in our community,” said Nicholai.

The festival honored dancer, artist, educator, and advocate Nengqerralria Chuna McIntyre with the Living Legend award. He’s the founder of the Nunamta Singers and Dancers.

“Dancing is like breathing. You do it because it’s part of you. It keeps you going. It keeps you alive,” said McIntyre.

Originally from Eek, McIntrye says he’s deeply humbled to receive the award. For him, the connection between those who taught before and those who now learn is direct.

“It is for them, it is for them. And then we think of the future generations who will come after us. We have a foundation, it’s important to have a firm foundation, to always to step on and stand on and to walk on, and be on that foundation,” said McIntyre.

Teaching the next generation happens now not just in village school gyms or family gatherings, but on smartphones and laptops across the globe. Bryon Nicholai’s over 15,000 facebook fans would not fit into the Bethel gym, but it was evident that the Tooksook Bay teenager had a lot of real life “likes.”

Athabaskan and Tlingit, Crystal Worl has a background in ballet. But for the last year and half, she’s been intensely studying aerial performance. With a silk hung from the rafters, she performed gravity defying climbs, wraps and drops.

“As an aerialist you always have think about about your entire body, especially your feet. ‘Are my feet pointed.?’ I’m very finicky about my feet. I’m thinking about breathing and being in the moment, moving with the music, that’s the number one thing. And hanging on!,” said Worl.

As she masters her discipline, Worl plans to bring in her traditional storytelling and art.

“I’m a weaver and I see the silks as parallel to weaving. Weaving my body through it, creating loops and ties that will unravel as I drop or dive forward or sift through my piece,” said Worl.

19-year-old Mary Kernak was crowned Miss Cama-i. Originally from Napakiak, she also has family in Holy Cross. Kernak graduated last year from BRHS. She currently working in Bethel and saving up to earn both her pilot’s license and enter college. She ran on a platform of suicide awareness and prevention and promoting a drug and alcohol free lifestyle. She hopes to spend time with kids to connect them with positive and healthy lifestyles.

From up north, the King Island Dancers keep their home alive through song and dance. Sylvester Ayek of the King Island Dancers was born and raised on King Island, which is no longer inhabited.

“It bonds the unity among the King Island community, even if we’re not on King Island anymore. Song and dance help to keep us as one,” said Ayek.

Cama-i this year was dedicated to the late Bethel traditional dancer Janis Martha Guest.

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Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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