AK: Kasigluk Yuraq tradition dances through the generations

Kasigluk community dancer Levi Nicholas is the grandson of Wassillee Nicholas, one of the Kasigluk dancers to whom Cama-i 2018 is dedicated. Levi Nicholas is pictured here at the Cama-i Dance Festival on March 16, 2018 in Bethel, Alaska. (Photo by Amara Freeman/ KYUK)

The 2018 Cama-i Dance Festival was dedicated to six elders from the tundra village of Kasigluk. The elders revived Yup’ik dance in the village and serve as the foundation of the community’s dance tradition today. The community is working to never need a revival again.

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It is tradition in Yup’ik dance for the men to sit in the back, drumming and singing, and for the boys to kneel in the front, dancing. Between them, the women and girls dance standing up. But during Kasigluk’s second song at Cama-i, tradition flipped. The men handed their drums to the boys, and the boys handed their dance fans to the men. As the men knelt, the boys began singing and drumming.

The next generation was now in charge.

“When I was growing up, there was no dancing in our schools in our village,” 65-year-old Marie Hoover said.

Hoover was a bilingual teacher in Kasigluk in the 1980s when the renaissance of Yup’ik dance began in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. But because the tradition had been largely erased by missionaries and BIA schools, few remembered how to do it. Fortunately, those few had started a dance group in Bethel, and Kasigluk invited those dancers to their village to teach them the tradition again.

The elders in Kasigluk who learned the dances are the ones to whom Cama-i 2018 is dedicated: Kalila Slim, Nellie Slim, Wassille Berlin Sr., Wassillie Nicholas, Alexy Nicholas and Pavilla Nicholas.

Gary Beaver leads Kassiglurmiut, the Kasigluk Community Dance Group. In fact, Beaver helped start the group. When he was young, Kasigluk’s only dance groups were in the schools. The six elders were the teachers. Beaver remembers refusing to sing and one of the elders, Kalila Slim, getting in his face.

The smallest Kasigluk dancer performs with his community dance group at the Cama-i Dance Festival on March 16, 2018 in Bethel, Alaska. (Photo by Amara Freeman/ KYUK)

“I wasn’t really into it,” Beaver said. “And all of a sudden, he [Slim] ran across the room, looked at me, and said, ‘You’re going to teach the next generation. You better start singing.’”

Once Beaver graduated, there was nowhere outside the school to dance. Then, that group of elders who had taught him started dying. Within a few years in the early 2000s, all six were gone and once again, dancing in Kasigluk stopped.

“Our tradition, the Eskimo dancing, I didn’t want it to just die off,” Beaver explained.

Beaver knew that the elders had recorded their songs on cassette tapes. He went to the school and asked a teacher if he could borrow them.

“He put them right in front of me,” Beaver remembered. “And said, ‘Go, and don’t come back until you learn them.’”

It wasn’t easy. The tapes were old, and friends and former classmates had to huddle over the recorder to make out some of the words.

“Using the old tapes, that’s what got it to click,” Beaver said. “Flashbacks, and we remembered it did this, and then we agreed, ‘oh yeah.’”

Beaver and his friends asked the village if they could start a community dance group so that they could continue dancing, so that dancing could carry past graduation, and so that all the generations could dance together. You already know their answer.

“At first we were mostly adults, but then the youth started showing up. Couple of youth, five of them, eight of them, 10 of them, 15 of them,” Beaver said, growing more excited. “They started showing up, and we were like, ‘Yeah! We’re so glad they’re doing it.’”

Some nights in Kasigluk up to 60 people show up to dance together. Ages range from infant to elder. At Cama-i, the group filled the stage.

“It falls into the theme of Cama-i: Drums Awaken Our Roots. Our elders passed away, and then the next generation took over, and now our future generation is taking over,” Beaver said. “So it’s better to teach them young, while we can, while they’re smarter. So they can have those songs in their heart.”

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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