On the Yukon-Kuskowkwim Delta, Yup’ik dance has undergone a renaissance. Everything that goes along with it, from intricate beading, headdresses to mukluks, dance fans to masks, has a story.
Julia Lewis, whose late husband Walter Lewis was honored by the festival this year, wore a pair of handmade mukluks to dance with her family from Chefornak. They weren’t hers, though. She borrowed them from one of her daughters. As she rocked back on her heels on the stage at Cama-i, swaying to the drums, red and blue beads bounced on the calfskin. After her dance, as Lewis talked about the boots, she rubbed her hand along the fur. Typically the darker fur is beaver, but she said it could also be otter.
“It feels soft. I think when you feel it, it makes you relax,” she said.
Lewis said that the mukluks were made by another woman from Chefornak. She tapped gently on the bearded seal soles. The boots are new, but she’s worn them in enough that the soles aren’t smooth. It’s a key part of getting new mukluks because the soles are slippery.
“So you’ve got to be careful, especially on ice,” she said.
Still, it’s easy to tell that they’re new when she taps on the soles.
“Hollow, right? They sound hollow because they’re hard. Once they start wearing them and walk on them and they kind of get soft, then it won’t be as – you won’t hear that much of that,” she said.
Some buy regalia from local crafters, but for many it’s a family affair. A piece can be borrowed, like Lewis’ boots, or made especially for them, like Lyric McIntyre’s.
Lyric McIntyre, who is five, danced for the first time with a group from Bethel’s Yup’ik immersion school. From the tips of her white-feathered dance fans, to her headdress, to her belt, McIntyre’s regalia was made by her family. Her uncle, Chuna McIntyre, said that it was a momentous occasion that called for special ceremonial regalia.
“Because this is her first dance, and because she’s named after our late mother, of course she would be decked out,” he said.
McIntyre says that Lyric’s first dance is just as important for her living family as it is for her ancestors.
“You see, we dress up as Yup’ik people. Not just for ourselves or for the audience, we also dress up for our ancestors,” he said. “That’s the way it was explained to me by my late grandmother, because our ancestors are watching us during these momentous events. So we dress up for them too,” he said.
For the first time in 12 years, dancers from Scammon Bay returned to the Cama-i stage. Alice Rivers walked offstage in her regalia after the group’s historic dance and sat down, sweating.
“Hot. I’m hot,” she said, tugging at her wolf and beaver headdress. “I didn’t start dancing until I was a grandma, so this headdress was given to me by my brother’s wife because I started dancing,” she said. “It’s good to have a headdress before you dance because it makes you look different.”
Rivers says that she dances better when she has her nasqurrun, her headdress, and her dance fans.
Later in the evening, another audience favorite gathered on stage. The Mt. St. Elias Dancers, a Tlingit group from Yakutat in Southeast Alaska, brought formline blankets and copper-detailed regalia out. Kai Monture stood above the rest with a large, egg-shaped traditional Tlingit battle helmet. It was a gift. The helmets are carved out of a burl: a very large, hard knot on a tree.
“It’s usually where the wood on the tree is the hardest, because the grain grows in multiple directions,” Monture said. “We specifically chose to make our helmets out of these because they are nearly unbreakable. It doesn’t crack like normal wood if you strike it.”
Typically, there’s also a crest.
“It’s common to see helmets with bears, wolves, or ravens on them because those represent the warriors of the clan, and they would often make those sounds during battle,” Monture said. “So if you had a wolf on your helmet, you would make wolf howls while you were fighting.”
Monture’s helmet has a snarling face carved into the top of it. It also has traditional human hair and shells for teeth. Monture says that the helmet weighs about 7 to 8 pounds. Combine that with the rest of his armor and his heavy stone hammer, and Monture says that it’s a kind of strength training.
“It really, really makes me appreciate how strong my ancestors were since they were able to wear this in battle, and this armor in battle for hours at a time,” he said. “I can’t even imagine.”
Among all of the feathers, warm furs, thick headdresses, and qaspeqs of the Yup’ik and Inupiat who attended the festival, the Seneca and Muscogee Sampson Family from the Northeastern part of the United States stood out.
Lumhe Micco Sampson has a strong name. It means “Eagle King,” and his dancing style matches. As his brother Samsoche Sampson plays the flute, Micco crawls and contorts his body. His muscles tense as he leaps suddenly and almost impossibly high into the air, all while spinning a set of white hoops that he and his family use to dance.
One of the more intricate pieces of Micco’s regalia is a belt that loops loosely around his waist and holds two long panels with raised beadwork that catch the light when he spins. Audience members get flashes of a heron here, wolf there; a small blue bird stitched into the sky above a deer’s antlers. His mother, Darice Sampson of the Seneca Cattaraugus reservation, holds the belt and points to each piece of the belt to explain.
“Way back, we used to have long houses and they were done by clans. In each family there’s eight clans, with the Senecas, and you have your birds, which consist of the hawk, the heron, the snipe, and then we have the deer,” she said. “The reason they call deer a bird is because the deer literally has all four feet off the ground when it leaps through the air. Then we have the four-leggeds, which is the wolf, the bear, the turtle, and the beaver.”
Sampson does all of the beadwork for the group. Each piece represents hours of work. She says that she gets a lot from watching her sons perform in regalia that she made.
“Oh, it feels great when my sons are out there and I sew all our outfits,” she said. “It just almost brings me to tears, but it’s tears of joy, tears of being proud, and I’m so glad they’re carrying on who we are and keeping us as indigenous people alive.”