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"Drums of Winter" To Tour Alaska

Oregon Provence Archives

Alaska’s first film to be inducted to the National Film Registry will be going on tour in communities of Alaska.

In 1988, after working on the film for ten years, curator of film at the University of Alaska Museum of the North and Professor of English at University of Alaska Fairbanks Leonard Kamerling co-directed the documentary “Drums of Winter.”

The film focuses on the tradition and importance of music and dancing in the Yup’ik culture.  Kamerling says the film explains the relationship between the Yup’ik and the Jesuits missionaries who tried to suppress native traditions.  He says “Drums of Winter” was the first film of its kind.

“We made this film because both the co-director, Sarah Elder, and I had lived in the Yup’ik communities and we were both very moved by the dance tradition. But had never really seen it documented or well documented or explained in a way that kind of reflected the emotional quality of it. We weren’t just interested because of what they do but what it means and what it means to the inner life of the community.”

When Kamerling and Elder arrived to the community of (E-mon-ek) Emmonak on the lower Yukon, the community was preparing for a potlatch celebration with a neighboring village.  A potlatch, which is a lot like a potluck, involves the two villages bringing food and celebrating with traditional Yup’ik music and dancing.  “Drums of Winter” follows the elders of Emmonak as they prepare by practicing the dances, making the drums and rehearse the songs. 

Kamerling says the goal of the film wasn’t to teach anything, but to bring the audience into the world of the Yup’ik.  However, he says he took the film back to Emmonak and the natives appreciate and enjoy the film.

“And I think that’s because of the way that the films are made. They were made with the idea of shared authorship that the people that are in the film are involved in the basic decisions of what the film is going to be about, who is going to be in it, what the film is going to say. So from the beginning it creates a sense of ownership that is not there in a more traditional documentary where the film maker writes a scenario, does research and then goes to gets the images to make that story work.”

Every year, of the over one thousand films nominated to the National Film Registry, only 25 are picked.  When Kamerling found out “Drums of Winter” was nominated to the National Film Registry in 2006, he says he was happy but cautious. 

“So when I heard I was quiet delighted and amazed and grateful and very appreciative that a film of this nature that’s largely in an Alaskan native language had reached that stature. More importantly it meant that the film would be preserved for the future. Generations from now people would still be able to see this film.”

Last week, the Library of Congress gave the film a special screening after it was digitally remastered.  This fall “Drums of Winter” will be going on tour, showings will be held in communities around Alaska including Bethel, Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.