How Yup’ik dance returned to Napaskiak after a 70-year absence

Napaskiak Dancers at Cama-i Dance on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK)

For many Yup’ik dance groups in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the pandemic limited their ability to gather together and perform traditional dance. Some groups are just beginning to dance together again after two years, but the village of Napaskiak remembers a longer period without the drums.

“It’s an old one. It’s about when the birds return, like the Canada goose, the crane, and then the famous crow or the raven,” said Julia Sipary, the leader of the Napaskiak Dance group, describing one of the village’s oldest songs.

It’s one of the few that remain from before the missionaries stopped yuraq in Napaskiak. That was in the 1930s. For 70 years, the drums fell silent.

Sipary was born during that time. She first saw Yup’ik dancing on television while watching a Native arts festival.

“And I wanted to start it too,” Sipary said. “I knew we were missing out.”

Her great-grandfather had been part of the last generation in the village to drum in the 1930s. She wanted to continue that tradition. When she was a young teacher at the Napaskiak school, she got her chance.

It was the year 2000. The principal asked Sipary if she would begin a dance group, but she couldn’t do it on her own. She and a group of others asked the two churches in the community, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Moravian Church, for approval first; they both said yes.

“It was surreal. Like we were able to breathe again,” Sipary said.

Sipary and another teacher, Rachael Nicolai, met with an elder who remembered Napaskiak’s dances. The elder’s name was Emma Clark. However, Clark did not want to be seen dancing.

“Tamani wani record-allraku Emma-m iirluni pilallruuq yugnun tangercecuumiinani aturpallrani wall’u yurallrani, aliingellrullilria-wa wall’u caperrsullruuuq akaarnun Napaskiarmi yuraayuirutellruata,” Sipary said speaking in Yugtun, describing how Clark taught the dances.

“So she requested a closet, and we’d be in the closet, and she would teach and record then,” Sipary said, choking up as she remembered Clark. “But I guess she felt scared or something. She didn’t want people to see her drumming, or singing and dancing.”

In all, Clark passed down six songs and dances to the community. A group from Bethel also came to Napaskiak and helped teach them to dance, sing, and drum again. Many people in Napaskiak were apprehensive about joining in after seven decades without the tradition. But, Sipary said, eventually that apprehension gave way to joy.

“Looking back, the people that were excited about it kind of spread throughout the community,” she said. “If they could do it, ‘Wow, and they’re so happy.’ They saw that, so they wanted to join,” said Sipary.

Napaskiak has been dancing now for over 20 years. Sipary has remained its main singer, drummer, and composer. It’s unusual for a woman to lead Yup’ik drumming. Sipary has also written most of the village’s songs. Many are inspired by watching her children. She’s written songs about hunting, playing basketball, and subsistence projects. One of the group’s favorite songs is about collecting punk fungus from birch trees.

The Napaskiak group consists of around 30 dancers. However, some members did not perform this Cama-i, and instead took advantage of the sunny day to go ice fishing. The group is multigenerational. Most of the members are students at the Napaskiak school where Sipary still works as a Yugtun and English teacher. She says that it’s important to pass the traditions to younger generations.

“If our kids aren’t dancing, if the kids aren’t singing, it will stop,” Sipary said.

KYUK - Bethel

KYUK is our partner station in Bethel. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

Read next

Site notifications
Update notification options
Subscribe to notifications