Saturday, March 31, 2007

"Come Over to My Canoe, Big Fish"

This is my first one. Last year, due to construction at the highschool, the Cama-i festival was reduced to a one-day Day of Dance. It was wonderful, and an experience that I would never forget and haven't stopped talking about since. (Someday I'll write about the First Catch tradition we participated in at that Day of Dance, and all the hopes and gratitudes it has since inspired.) But yesterday I went to the actual, unabridged, full-out Cama-i Festival. And, well, it's all that it was described as, and more!

The picture above is of the Tsimshians, a Southeast dance group with different dance traditions that came in for the festival, doing their "Come Over to My Canoe, Big Fish" dance.

As a Cama-i volunteer, my task was to arrange transportation to and from the airports for out-of-town dance groups that come in for the festival. (I'll save for another posts my introduction by sink-or-swim to Cama-i village travel, and the lessons I learned about how I could better carry out my task next time - it might be a tad too long for this post.) The Tsimshians, with a keen expectation of the chaos that was to greet the fully packed 3 p.m. arrival of the Alaskan Airlines flight yesterday, disembarked from the jet wearing matching, eye-catching, and distinguishable woven hats. Alas, I didn't get any pictures - of the hats or the scene - but I was most certainly grateful for the courtesy of helping us to easily identify their group.

As for their first impression of my town: Suffice it to say, I didn't know that the local airport could hold so many people. For the hour it took to get groups sorted with rides, and baggage matched with passengers, volunteer drivers tasked with destinations, and solutions forged for the unexpected twists and surprises, I'm quite confident that my little slice of the bush was the most exotic, diverse and happening place of Alaska. And I have to laugh at my original hope of greeting the dancers, and thanking the volunteers, with homemade cookies. I couldn't have baked enough cookies if I had an entire weekend!

The Tsimshians did their first song off-stage, from behind a curtain. The dance leader explained that they did this to honour Bethel and to thank them for the invitation to dance in their land. I can confess to be quite moved by the dignity and breadth of that courtesy. I guess I was moved by their entire performance. Their dances incorporated masks and stories, and almost every one in some way honored non-Tsimshians. For example, one dance was a family dance. The leader explained that there are clans - the Bear Clan, Wolf Clan, Eagle Clan, Raven Clan. Each clan was given a spotlight opportunity to dance. Non-Tsimshians were given the opportunity to dance for the Butterflies - which symbolizes the clan of Non-Tsimshians.
In another dance, which I miserably failed to photograph (so thoroughly engrossed was I in the dance iteself), they asked what had become an incredibly packed highschool gym for 4 adult volunteers. It must have been hard to identify the hands raised by adult volunteers from the sea of eager, hopping children with both hands raised. But they did, and they brought the four relatively adult volunteers to the center of the stage to form a tight circle with their backs faced to each other. Then they did the "Cockle-Squirt Dance," with a camera capturing the facial expressions of each volunteer as they were squirted in the face by a bright orange, mischevious mask-clad figure in a long red cape. At the end of the dance, the Tsimshians thanked the volunteers with gift bags of hooligans.
All in all, and more to be told later - I haven't even started to find the words for describing the local dance groups (a picture of the local response to which is to the side), one evening of Cama-i confirmed that I wouldn't want to live any other place than where I am currently living.

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