It was the opening night of the annual Cama-i dance festival in Bethel, and most of the members of one of the featured dance groups had yet to arrive.
Inside the Bethel Regional High School green room, where dancers wearing qaspeqs and fur-lined headdresses gathered to prepare for their performances, St. Mary’s dance group leader George Beans tried to buy more time.
“The plane just got to St. Mary’s,” he told festival organizer Linda Curda. Weather delayed the afternoon flight, which was scheduled to bring about half of the dancers from the Yukon River community.
Glancing at the printed schedule, Curda did some mental math. St. Mary’s was meant to be on stage already, but she moved up the Marshall dancers. Maybe she could move another?
“OK, so guess what? I’m going to go talk to these guys and see if we can get them to move up,” Curda told Beans.
Travel hiccups are just another part of life on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and the St. Mary’s Dancers are used to delays at this point. Cama-i announcers said that they’re one of the oldest dance groups in the region, but it’s been over a decade since they’ve danced at the annual event.
This year’s three-day Cama-i, which started Friday, was the first full-scale festival since 2019, and it’s dedicated to Moses Paukan Sr., who helped start the St. Mary’s dance group about 50 years ago. He was also a former state representative and longtime school board member in St. Mary’s.
Paukan died in 2017 and was meant to be recognized at the 2020 festival, but it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. His wife, Martha, and some of his children traveled to Bethel to receive the dedication.
“We’ve been put off for five years, so now it’s got to be the real deal now,” Beans said.
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Luckily, Cama-i’s organizers are no strangers to improvising. After rearranging the dancer schedule and inviting a few unplanned speakers to the stage on Friday, they’d just about exhausted all their options when Curda took the mic.
“Guess what? St. Mary’s is here!” she told the packed auditorium. Applause erupted as dancers and drummers poured onto the stage. Without pausing, they took their places and the yuraq began.
One of the songs they performed was written by Paukan Sr.: “Ataki Tang Wiinga.” He wrote many songs for children and encouraged the youth in his community to continue dancing. Today, the dance group he founded 50 years ago has more than 20 members, from youth up to Elders, including his wife and some of his children and grandchildren.
Isabella Peterson is 16. This was her first Cama-i. She wasn’t on the plane that was delayed, but her grandmother was. Despite all the stress earlier in the day, she said that it was all worth it to step out on the stage in Bethel.
“It feels pretty amazing to dance in front of many other people and to see other dance groups dance and perform,” Peterson said.
Pausing from her dancing, Martha Paukan accepted a plaque for her husband and led the room in the Lord’s Prayer by way of thanks. The audience, young and old, joined in.
“Your legacy, Moses, your spirit lives on in the dances of St. Mary’s,” Curda said during the dedication.
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