Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter returns to the Y/K Delta

Here is a shot of one of the scenes from Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter that was taken during the qasgiq Eskimo dancing in Emmonak in 1977.

by K.J. Lincoln

Audiences in Emmonak and Bethel enjoyed a special screening of the digitally restored award winning documentary film Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter. The film was shown at the Community Hall in Emmonak on Wednesday, May 10th and at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel on Friday, May 12th.

Uksuum Cauyai was shot in Emmonak 40 years ago in the spring of 1977 by filmmakers Sarah Elder and Len Kamerling. Both Elder and Kamerling have lived in villages – Elder in Emmonak and Kamerling in Kasigluk who served as a VISTA Volunteer from 1965 to 1966.

Elder was one of the first teachers to ever teach in Emmonak after the landmark Molly Hootch case, said Kamerling.

“It would have been years to get this kind of access,” said Kamerling during the question and answer session at the Bethel screening. “Living there started a path for this kind of filmmaking.”

Uksuum Cauyai tells the story of potlatching and dancing between Emmonak and Alakanuk and the changes to dance culture over the 100 years prior to the production. The film is unusual in that it is a collaborative filmmaking effort with the villagers of Emmonak; the residents speak for themselves in the film and advised the filmmakers throughout production and post-production. The film was released in 1988.

The opening footage begins in the qasgiq, or communal men’s house where Eskimo dancing, potlatches, and steambathing took place. In the first shot the men are getting their drums ready for the upcoming dancing. They are examining the seal membrane drum material and they end up cutting an unnecessary piece of it off, quietly speaking Yugtun to each other, “aturngaitan”.

The subtitles are in English when the speakers in the film are speaking Yup’ik.

The qasgiq community house had a traditional kenilleq fire pit, a window at the top to let out smoke, and a wooden plank floor.

In one scene during a break in the dancing, a woman was dishing out delicious-looking heaps and spoonfuls of akutaq served on wax paper and other foods and goods in memory of her late mother whose name was given to a newborn baby in the community.

The sharing and giving helped the lady feel better from the loss of her mother, she said.

People were using paper bags, no plastic. Karakorum parkas were being worn along with the beautiful homemade cloth parkas with wolverine and wolf ruffs. They also wore traditional mukluk boots. One of the potlatch items that was being distributed were dried seal skins that are used for sole material.

Later on that year in the fall television came.

“It rended the social fabric of the place,” Kamerling said. “There were no first dances.”

There were several segments during the film where members of the dance community spoke about different topics centered around the tradition of yuraq and potlatches. They explained the anatomy of a song, what materials dance fans were made of, how they use masks in their dancing, the power of the mind and body cleansing steambaths, and the spiritual aspects of their dance traditions in remembrance of the departed ones.

“They say the dead live on through the giving to others,” one man said.

One of the characters said that he was not interested in other kinds of dances, or basketball games, or even the addicting pull of bingo – only yuraq. Yuraq was his most favorite thing to do, his best entertainment.

“Anglanaklarqa, cellangutkellruaqa,” he said. “I love it, I was born into it.”

One part of the movie that resonated with the audience was when a girl, now a young lady, spoke of her first dance. She said she was so excited for that day, that night that she was going to dance. She had her new headdress, parka, and dance fans ready. She said she was very nervous and scared. There was footage of her first dance, which she shared with two other first dancers. The filmmakers were very lucky to find those girls attending college in Fairbanks and were able to do a post-interview with them.

“It’s such a good feeling being honored,” said one young lady when looking back. “I felt good of myself.”

To watch the experience of the first dance, the fear and loneliness, and then the strength of the network of support as her family danced with her was very moving.

“It was filmmakers good luck to find those three girls (at UAF),” said Kamerling.

A few times letters written by Catholic and Moravian missionaries during the years before the film was made were narrated to give a different perspective. The church frowned upon the potlatches. One generation was away at boarding school and the 20-30 year olds were not interested, said Kamerling. The young ladies who were interviewed as college students felt that Eskimo dancing would soon disappear.

Today, the schools have taken over the teaching of Eskimo dancing, said retired KuC professor Cecelia Martz who participated in the film’s translations. She was at the Bethel screening to provide descriptions of the film’s significance to Yup’ik culture.

Martz spoke about the background of the ladies dance fans with the carved emblems.

“Each one of our families had those,” she said of the past. “That is being lost. The emblems are being lost.”

She also explained that during a potlatch when the gift giving is taking place that each gift is touched by the first dancer before it is given away. This blessing means that when the first dancer touches the gift, it is like the namesake of that person is the one doing the gifting. This part was not explained in the film.

Uksuum Cauyai has won numerous awards including at the American Film Festival, the International Arctic Film Festival and the Margaret Mead Film Festival. It was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2006 in recognition of its significant value to American culture.

Len Kamerling is currently a professor at the UAF Museum of the North. He and Sarah Elder have in their safe keeping the original film footage from 1977. He said he has 35 hours of film that they did not use in the 90-minute Uksuum Cauyai.

“That is priceless,” he said. They plan to make more trips to Emmonak in the future.

What about the old qasgiq where the filming took place? It has long been torn down, said Kamerling, to make way for a new road.

Bob Curtis-Johnson of SummitDay Media was also on hand to describe the film’s extensive preservation process that included a full photochemical restoration to polyester film stock from the original elements as well as a 2K digital scan and color restoration for digital cinema presentation.

Mike Martz, retired KYUK Manager and archives technician at SummitDay Media opened the film festival by welcoming the Naneng Yup’ik Eskimo dance group of Bethel who performed prior to the screening. The digital restoration was also screened at BNC’s Suurvik Theater in Bethel on May 6th and 7th.

The UKSUUM CAUYAI film preservation project was made possible with contributions from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation, SummitDay Media, University of Alaska Museum of the North, Donlin Gold, KYUK-TV and Chase Audio by Deluxe.

When asked how it was like to go back to Emmonak, Kamerling said that he recognized a lot of the folks from the last time he was there.

“It was moving to be there again,” he said.