Yup’ik dancing, Christian prayers mark Dillingham’s blessing of the fleet

The Curyung Wolverine Dancers perform a blessing at Dillingham’s 34th Blessing of the Fleet on June 17, 2023. (Corinne Smith/KDLG)

The sun shone on a crowd of over 100 Dillingham residents, fishing crews, friends and families gathered before the Fishermen’s Memorial at the harbor for the 34th annual Blessing of the Fleet, honoring those who died fishing in Bristol Bay.

Those gathered at the June 17 event prayed for safety, luck and bounty in the upcoming salmon season.

Aileen Walsh with the Holy Rosary Catholic Church dedicated the first prayer to the protection and abundance of the Bristol Bay salmon runs.

“While so many other populations of salmon are vanishing, the waters of Bristol Bay remain productive. Let our first prayer be for the continued health of Bristol Bay and the salmon that thrive there,” Walsh said.

Elders sat in chairs to the front, children played nearby on the grass and fishing crews continued to trickle over from the nearby harbor to listen.

“This memorial is testimony to all those who lost their lives,” Walsh said. “Because although the bay is productive, it is nonetheless dangerous. For those who are gone, today we come to pray and remember.”

The fishermen’s memorial, an upright boat fashioned into an altar, houses the names of those lost at sea. For the ceremony, it had flowers laid beneath it.

A bell tolled for each of the 97 people who have died fishing in Bristol Bay.

Pastors of the six local churches in Dillingham offered prayers for the dead and all those affected by their loss, as well as for continued safety of mariners.

For the first time this year, youth dancers with the Curyung Wolverine Dance Group performed, adorned in traditional regalia and holding tegumiak, or hand-held Yup’ik dance fans.

Elementary and high school dancers danced a traditional Yup’ik blessing song about tundra tea. The dance became a viral video at the start of the pandemic, says Tish Olsen, one of the organizers involved in the group and summer culture camp.

“It’s about the traditional use of Ayaq, which is tundra tea to bless hunters and gatherers as they go out on the land,” Olsen said. “And, we’ve been using it a lot, to do openings and blessings for things for various community things. And we just love to dance it, it’s a good song.”

Dancers also performed a traditional seal hunting song.

The event at the Dillingham harbor took a pause during the COVID pandemic. Diane Folsom, with the Holy Rosary Catholic Church, says the community tradition was especially important after a three year hiatus.

“What a wonderful feeling,” Folsom said. “We’ve all taken our precautions for these many many years and we were all able to come together today and pray for our fishermen and fisherwomen. It just felt really really good.”

Fishing crews joined the crowd, some after launching their boats in the harbor. Alana Kansaku-Sarmiento has been fishing for several years, and works on the F/V Aventura.

“I’m really grateful that I made it this year,” said Alana Kansaku-Sarmiento, who has been fishing for several years and works on the F/V Aventura. “I feel like we can use all the help we can get, to be honest, safety-wise. I don’t pray myself, or anything like that but I feel the intent, I feel the love. It’s really nice to participate in that way. And I loved the dancers at the end. My favorite part every year is the reading of the names, it’s a beautiful testament.”

The event closed with a song by a longtime Dillingham resident, Phyllis Grady, and performed by local musician Teresa Duncan, blessing the fishing fleets of Bristol Bay.

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