#393) Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter (1989)


#393) Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter (1989)

Directed by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling

Class of 2006

The Plot: “Drums of Winter” chronicles the Yup’ik, an indigenous people in the small town of Emmonak, Alaska, specifically the traditional Yuraq dances during their potlatch ceremonies. In their trademark collaborative film style, Elder and Kamerling let their subjects describe their own lives and customs without interference from either of the directors. The types of Yup’ik dances are discussed and showcased, as is the history of these dances being banned by American missionaries, to the point of near extinction. Through the power of film, and the oral history of the Yup’ik, these dances survive.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief rundown and description of the Yup’ik. The only superlative given to the film itself is that it is “beautiful”.

But Does It Really?: Within minutes of my viewing I knew why “Drums of Winter” was inducted into the NFR: by preserving this film, they are preserving a culture. In addition, “Drums of Winter” represents Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling, two filmmakers who have spent their lives chronicling the Alaskan people and their evolving culture. “Drums of Winter” is an engaging glimpse at an oft-ignored culture, and I’m glad the NFR has chosen to preserve and highlight this film.

Everybody Gets One: Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling spent most of the ‘70s and ‘80s making documentaries about various Native Alaskan cultures, and the hardships they endured to keep their traditions free from outside influences. The two filmmakers had a unique approach to their films, in that the subjects themselves had a creative say in what was presented (and how) in the final film. Other Elder/Kamerling/Native Alaskan collaborations include “At the Time of Whaling” and “On the Spring Ice”, both chronicling another Yup’ik community on St. Lawrence Island.

Wow, That’s Dated: The bulk of this movie was shot in 1977, and even citizens on a remote Alaskan coastline have those brown lens prescription glasses I associate with the late ‘70s.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Drums of Winter” played the festival circuit, so I don’t know if it ever got an Oscar qualifying run. The 1989 Best Documentary winner was the Ron Epstein and Bill Couturié classic “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt”. None of Elder and Kamering’s documentaries have received any Oscar love.

Other notes

  • The bulk of this movie concerns the potlatch ceremonies associated with indigenous peoples of both Alaska and northwestern Canada. Long time readers may recall the history of the potlatch being discussed in my write-up for “In the Land of the Head Hunters”, a 1914 docudrama made during a ban on potlatches implemented by Jesuit missionaries. It was fascinating to revisit this practice over 60 years later and find it still surviving, albeit in a far less extravagant manner (assuming the depiction in “Head Hunters” is accurate).
  • The importance of documentaries like this cannot be overstated. These dances have been passed down through the centuries orally, with various customs changing based on memory and perception. To have a filmed document of how and why these dances were performed (at least in the 1970s) is indispensable. It also confirms one of my film professor’s theories on how to make a great documentary: “Point a camera at the oldest person in the room and start asking questions.”
  • One of the interviewees stories involves her grandfather fighting off a polar bear by spearing the bear where the sun don’t shine. And I thought “The Hunters” was too cruel to animals…
  • “Drums of Winter” films several scenes inside one of Emmonak’s dance houses (Qargi), a sacred space that required the approval of the Emmonak citizens to be filmed. Interestingly enough, it was the elders that were most supportive of the filming, knowing it was important to document the Qarqi.
  • “Now we’re on film. After we die they can see us.” That guy gets it.
  • Shoutout to Walkie Charles, one of several translators used in the film, but the only one actually from Emmonak. His local experience helped him translate the more unique phrases and colloquialisms of the Yup’ik. After their first meeting, Leonard Kamerling asked, “Where have you been?”
  • There’s a lot of talk about the western influence on the Yup’ik in the late 1800s/early 1900s. This was due to America purchasing Alaska from Russia in 1867. Alaska was mostly ignored for the first 40-50 years as an American territory, other than from those exploiting its resources and Jesuit missionaries telling the natives that their beliefs were “wrong”. Qarqis were completely demolished, and dance ceremonies eliminated. While these practices have been mostly reversed in the last 100 years, western technology has definitely changed the Yup’ik and their way of life.
  • I appreciate Elder and Kamerling’s hands-off approach with their subjects: No narration, minimal text, everyone speaks for themselves. It makes the dance sequences in this film much more powerful, knowing the specific stories behind why these people are dancing.
  • So if you want your documentary to make it into the NFR, you need an NEA grant. Got it.


  • Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling have only made a handful of films in the years since “Drums of Winter”: Kamerling with 1997’s “Heart of the Country” and 2016’s “Changa Revisited”, Elder with 2015’s “Remains to Be Seen”. Kamerling was also recently profiled on something called “Alaska Filmmakers”.
  • Both Elder and Kamerling now teach documentary filmmaking: Kamerling at the University of Alaska, Elder at the University of Buffalo. According to the Documentary Educational Resources website, Elder still has a log cabin just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, where she resided for 25 years. Don’t know if that still holds true, but it makes for good copy.
  • Thankfully, the Yup’ik started actively trying to preserve the Yuraq dances throughout the mid-80s, and today their dances are more commonly known and practiced. Annual dance festivals have also made a comeback throughout Alaska.

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