Arts and Entertainment

Bethel readies itself for the cultural explosion of Cama-i Dance Festival

BETHEL — The biggest Alaska Native dance festival of the year is set to begin at month's end with a lineup of local, regional and national acts.

The annual Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel starts March 31 at 5:30 p.m. and continues April 1 and 2, with performances until midnight both Friday and Saturday and until 9 p.m. on Sunday.

There will be Alaska Native arts and crafts for sale, educational sessions on culture and dance, a Miss Cama-i competition and this year, a fur fashion show. One of the quirkier side elements features free dental checks sponsored by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.

"Just come and have a great time," said Linda Curda, one of the Cama-i coordinators.

About 20 groups are set to dance, sing or drum including Pamyua, an award-winning tribal funk group with Yup'ik and Inuit members who last came to the Bethel festival in 2011, Curda said.

The three-day cultural explosion at the Bethel Regional High School gym began in 1989 as an annual event of the Bethel Council of the Arts.

In Yup'ik, "cama-i" means a warm, welcoming hello, often after a time apart. The festival is a constant churn of dance and more.

The Sampson Bros., a group of Native American hoop dancers with roots in Chicago, is on the schedule. So is the Anchorage-based hip-hop group Kontagious Mindz. Another nationally known group booked for the stage is Danza Matachin Pavo Real, based in Texas, Curda said. Its performances build on ancient dances from Mexico that celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Bethel Council on the Arts spends about $70,000 a year on the festival, which is raised from ticket sales, T-shirts and concessions, Curda said. Sponsors include airlines, restaurants and stores, as well as organizations including the Association of Village Council Presidents, Calista Corp. and Bethel's tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council.

The festival has no staff; only cleaning crews are paid. About 400 volunteers pitch in, Curda said.

"It's a big logistical event," she said.

This year, one highlight will be an educational program on Yup'ik regalia by Chuna McIntyre, who now lives in California but who was born and raised in the village of Eek near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River.

A number of Bethel dance groups will perform. Others will come in from Mountain Village, Alakanuk, Mekoryuk, Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka, and Chevak. An Athabascan drummer is coming as well as Inuit dancers from Wales.

Some details are still being worked out. A fur fashion show is being reintroduced to highlight parkas created during a Bethel multiweekend workshop, It might also include other special items that people want to display, such as seal gut rain parkas, Curda said.

The fur show featuring elders and their regalia was once a crowd favorite, but has been absent since about 2005.

Raphael and Vivian Jimmy, a couple married about 70 years and originally from the Lower Yukon, will be recognized as living treasures, Curda said. They may dance, she said.

Entry tickets are $10 per day for adults, $5 for those age 5 to 17 or Kuskokwim campus students, and $1 for elders 65 or older. Three-day passes are $25 and $12.

Airfare from Anchorage can be as low as $250 or as few as 10,000 miles if booked far enough ahead.

Hotel rooms and bed and breakfasts typically fill up during Cama-i. So do spare beds, couches and floor space for relatives and friends coming in.

Dance groups are housed wherever the Bethel organizers can find space: an elementary school gym, Moravian church dorms, the Head Start school building.

"It's a huge deal for Bethel, as far as impact on the community, the grocery stores and the restaurants, the air carriers. The taxi cabs are just running all the time," said Don Black, general manager at Long House Alaskan Hotel, which offers a $99 weekend rate for people who live in the region.

It's something more too, a way to rebuild connections.

"It's a chance for everybody to see everybody from surrounding villages," Black said. "It's a chance to share culture and a chance to share time with loved ones, to swap stories and see one another."

This year's theme is nunaniryuum nalliini, Yup'ik for the time of joy.

Cama-i Dance Festival

When: March 31 to April 2

What: Festival of dance and art rooted in Alaska Native culture

How much: $10 a day for adults, $5 for kids and $1 for elders, discounts for the whole weekend.

Where: Bethel Regional High School

Getting there: Alaska Airlines and Ravn Alaska fly from Anchorage.

Where to stay: Long House Alaskan Hotel, Bentley's Bed and Breakfast and small bed and breakfast spots including Brown Slough are all options that typically fill up closer to the festival time.