Camai'i = Welcome

Hello. I welcome you.

Audra Surman came to Alaska in 2015 as a new teacher to the Lower Kuskokwim School District and a participant in the Alaska Humanities Forum’s C3 program. Creating Cultural Competence of Rural Early Career Teachers partners the Forum with both the Lower Kuskokwim and Northwest Arctic Borough School Districts, as well as cultural partners Calista Education and Culture and Maniilaq Association. This unique cultural immersion experience is available for teachers new to these two regions of Alaska. Participating in a traditional culture camp, while learning from regional Elders and Youth, teachers experience a rich immersion that is part of their required multi-cultural studies course toward Alaska certification.

After camp, each new teacher is paired with a local mentor who helps deepen their cultural experiences in their new home. Audra had been paired with cultural mentor Darlene Lincoln after she began teaching in Toksook Bay, and soon dancing became a passion. With the teaching and encouragement of her mentor, Audra soon found herself not only enjoying dancing at home in Toksook Bay but also performing at Cama-i Dance Festival.

Cama-i is not only a word of greeting in the language of both the Sugpiaq and Yupik Alaska Native peoples, it’s also the name of a culturally diverse dance festival that has been celebrated each spring in Bethel since 1989. Knowing the value of supporting their teachers in their cultural journey, the Lower Kuskokwim School District expects first year teachers to attend the Cama-i Dance Festival, and will pay for their journey to Bethel from the villages in which they are teaching once their contract is renewed for a second year.

Agatha John-Shields, course instructor for C3 and Lower Kuskokwim’s multicultural studies, has deep family ties to the Cama-i tradition. Her father, Chief Paul John, has been recognized for his contributions to Camai-I as a leader, cultural mentor, and deeply respected Yup’ik Elder. Agatha’s daughter, Piiyuuk, is the 2016 Miss Cama-i, and family members have performed at Cama-i for many years.

The 2017 Camai-I Dance Festival welcomed twenty dancing, singing, and drumming groups from Alaska and the Lower 48. Find out more about this year’s festival.


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