Craftsmen returning to Cama-I say it’s a “breath of fresh air”
Yup’ik dance performances headlined the Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel. But right off the stage, dozens of West Alaskan artists and artisans showcased handmade work for sale, from carved ivory earrings and beads to colorful kuspuks and beaver-skin hats.
Tununak artist John Oscar sold out all of his multimedia collages on the first day of the festival.
“It was a very successful day,” he said.
Oscar, who lives in Bethel, combines materials like driftwood, feathers and ivory with acrylic paints to depict stories or scenes in nature.
His table was wedged into a corner of Bethel’s Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center. Dozens of other tables were crowded around hers, displaying handicrafts from all over the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta.
Oscar has been coming to Cama’i since the 90s. Not having the festival in recent years due to COVID-19 has been difficult for vendors like Oscar, especially since the pandemic has made it more difficult to obtain materials .
Sellers said Cama-i’s return this year was more than just sales. It is a relief.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” laughed Ida Alexie, who sat with her husband Roy Alexie behind a pine and oak-handled ulus-covered table. Roy made handsaw blades. He has been making curved blade knives for almost 50 years.
On the first day of the festival, Ida says that they sold half of the ulus they brought. She hoped they would sell the other half on the second day.
“We missed having Cama-i,” she said as Roy nodded in agreement. “Because it’s a good way to make money.”
There have been fewer opportunities to earn that money since the pandemic began.
Many Cama’i artisans sell at local Saturday markets in Bethel or venues in Anchorage to continue generating income. Jonathan McIntyre is an ivory carver from Eek, but lives in Bethel. He sometimes sells at the Dimond Center in Anchorage, but his sales are better in Bethel.
“People know me,” McIntyre said. “They rush to come see me. Good to see a lot more people now.
Every inch of McIntyre’s table was laden with pairs of carved ivory earrings, decorated with baleen and pearls. He said he wasn’t sure if Cama-i would return this year, but he carved all winter anyway, hoping for a chance to sell his work at the festival.
McIntyre said he could make about 30 pairs of earrings in a week, using a handsaw with a hacksaw and patterns he inherited from his grandfather. He learned to carve by watching his father and grandfather when he was a child.
“I was always at the store, at the garage… I admire the older generation. I’m looking at him,” he said.
McIntyre said being able to keep his family’s craft alive made him feel like a supplier. He also started teaching his nephews and children to carve.
Around the corner, Helen Lane was also striving to carry on the tradition. Lane, who was born in Point Hope, helped launch an Alaska Native women’s sewing boutique called IñuPiphany in Anchorage last November.
“Many of them have never sewn. And so it’s just a way for them to come and learn and heal. It’s a center for cultural healing,” she said.
The indigenous women who participate make one piece for themselves and another for the shop. Then IñuPiphany sells the second piece to buy more materials. Lane helped sell some of that work at Cama-i — caribou skin masks, fur gloves and hats, and a toddler-sized parka lined her table.
She said Cama-i provides a healing space for artists to carry on their traditions.
“You can see different cultures, different villages doing their dance. And then they have their doors open for other artists to sell, because a lot of them rely on their art sales to support their families,” Lane said.
This year was Lane’s first time at Cama-i. Already, she says, sales were strong.
RELATED: Chefornak dancers pay homage to loved ones at this year’s Cama-i dance festival
Copyright 2022 Alaska Public Media. To see more, visit Alaska Public Media.