Let's Dance

"Agayuliyararput" - Our Way Making Prayer. The drum was the heart of everyone, one beat, one family, one love, one joy and giving thanks to Ellam Yua – Person of the Universe. The Yup’ik Natives had festivals with two or more neighboring villages to celebrate for about 3 days. It brought much joy to everyone.

Preparation would usually begin after all the major food harvests had been put away. Neighboring villages and the host community would prepare gifts of useful utensils, hunting gear, fish traps, frozen fish, dried fish, dried meat, oars, harpoons, seal oil, and gifts of nets, buckets, brooms, sugar, guns, pilot bread, mop buckets, towels, gloves and socks.

Even a qayaq – kayak would show up in past festivals, and everything you could think of in 1964. It was Tununak's turn to host such an event. The weather was calm, cool, clear, and the trails were perfect in winter. Participants from other villages arrived in dogsleds with family and gifts in gear. Local dogs would make their welcoming to families arriving. Snow machines were not in existence then. Each would park on the river below their relative's homes.

It was believed that the fish and animals gave themselves as gifts. They also observed how their bodies were treated during the preservation process. The bones of fish were also dried for their juicy leftover meat for pukuk – gnawing the meat off the bones. It pleased the fish and animals that their sacrifice was well used. Animal parts were also used during dances, headgear, dance fans, and drums.

From the four corners of the Qas’giq - communal building, they would string carved decorations representing their subsistence resources. The four strings or the four corners of the land would be pulled up and down in rhythm to the drum. Small figurines of animals, fish, seal, and birds all led to a doll in the center. In the center the doll was just a symbol for Ellam Yua, the creator. The doll including the masks from the performances were not idolized. Kids would use the figurines for play afterwards. Masks were used as kindling as well. Along with these figurines they also used Ptarmigan stomachs for balloons. Inside they had natural dried tundra tea leaves that made a sound when shook.

Performances would begin in the afternoon, as it got dark, they used a few Coleman Kerosene lamps with pumping levers. They would hiss and brighten everything, especially the gifts that were now waist high. It made everyone proud. One elder I believe was Paul John, who said “It was as if Halloween, New Years, and Christmas were all rolled into one.”

The conductor would keep everyone in rhythm to one beat. I remember Apasugaq – Augustine Heavy, with another partner, each holding a dance-stick that they swung back and forth. And due to their weight, they were hung from a ceiling. They were decorated with beautiful animals, fish and bird figurines, accented with feathers that fluttered in the wind. Apasugaq shouted and grunted in rhythm encouraging the singers and drummers to one beat. He would call upon each person's name during the naming ceremony, then call upon other village participants in a singing fashion.

It was an incredible sight to see everyone celebrating as one. Performers would swing their gifts into the air in rhythm toward the pile of other gifts. Once free of their gifts the dancers would then swing their arms and bodies in great joy. Cousins would attempt to outdo their best performance with their teasing cousins in comical feats. All the audience would experience the fullness of joy, people grinning and laughing for all the blessings of the love of family. All form of past passed away but with a renewed sense of family as a single unit. It provided for those in need to spread the wealth of Ellam Yua's gifts. All form of tools and material things after all pass away, just as well as our bodies do, but the gift of love is eternal.

After the celebration the animals returned to Ellam Yua, and reported how they were treated well by the humans. They asked permission to return through their hunting, fishing and gathering to celebrate at another coming festival. Ellam Yua then being pleased of the love, gift-giving and the respect humans showed for one another, then gave the fish and wildlife permission to celebrate life with humans again at the next harvest or gathering.

Honor our creator with love and family, this is what kept our ancestors alive for thousands of years. At’saq - John Oscar.

Below is just a sample of what the drum can do. Although they are not conducting a naming ceremony or gift giving, it is still a powerful experience one has to feel in person.

Please visit Camai.org : Video 2019 Camai Dance Festival - Heart of the Drum

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