The Drums of Winter welcomes viewers into the lively musical gatherings of the Yup’ik people of Emmonak, Alaska. Inside the kashim (dance house), the Yup’iks joyfully sing, drum, and wave feathered fans in synchronized movements. The songs they perform date back generations, sharing stories and blessings for a prosperous season.
The putrid stench of colonialism emerges midway through the 1988 documentary, with the letters read by a Christian priest attempting to “save” the Yup’iks, who he describes as “disgusting.” In their communal culture, the Yup’iks believe the more you share with others, the more you will receive back. This stands in stark contrast to the priest’s letter, which praises a famine where the Yup’iks come to him for help, putting the so-called “sinners” in his debt.
Despite the church and government’s best efforts to shut down their spiritual events, the Yup’iks persevere. At ceremonial potlatches, the poorest members of the community are offered sleds full of fish to share in the celebration. With the simple act of allowing the subjects of the documentary to tell their own story, The Drums of Winter is a celebration of the Yup’iks’ beautiful traditions and compassionate beliefs.