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Delta Diva MaryAnn Sundown, 93, dies in Scammon Bay

Alex DeMarban
MaryAnn Sundown dances at the 1999 Camai Festival.
Stephen Nowers photo
MaryAnn Sundown dances at the 1999 Camai Festival.
Stephen Nowers photo
Maryann Sundown performs at the 1999 Camai Festival in Bethel.
Stephen Nowers photo
Elder MaryAnn Sundown at the 1999 Camai festival in Bethel.
Stephen Nowers photo
Elder MaryAnn Sundown dances during the 2002 Camai Dance Festival in Bethel.
Stephen Nowers photo
MaryAnn Sundown dances at the 1999 Camai Festival in Bethel.
Stephen Nowers photo
MaryAnn Sundown at the 2002 Camai Festival.
Stephen Nowers photo
MaryAnn Sundown at the 1999 Camai Festival
Stephen Nowers photo

The Delta Diva died Thursday night after a bout with pneumonia. MaryAnn Sundown was 93.

An Alaska Native dance legend who continued singing and waving her arms even on her death bed in the village of Scammon Bay, Sundown was famed across Alaska for dance routines that had audiences bursting with hysterical laugher -- including a Bruce Lee rendition complete with flying karate kicks, even into old age.

Sundown's long, joyous life demonstrated the value of happiness and old Yup'ik ways, including a traditional diet heavy on raw fish, said her son Harley Sundown.

Even though MaryAnn had difficulty getting around later in life, she remained the main attraction at the annual Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel.

Everyone there knew her age was advanced, and that she was ill. Will she show up this year? When she did, audiences roared.

Later in life at the annual spring dance festival, though wrinkled, hunched over and shrinking away, she remained larger than life on stage, waving her arms in motion to the beat of traditional drums. Often, she’d curl into her own ball of laughter and slap arms, always to wild applause. During one traditional dance night at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention long ago, spectators were so wowed by her late-age theatrics that they showered her with wads of cash, which she gleefully stuffed into a bag before waddling off stage.

Sundown's phones have been busy with people expressing condolences and Facebook has been alive with online chatter about her passing.

"It's amazing how a simple woman who grew up with no amenities, no modern amenities, could become such a household name," said Harley Sundown, the youngest of 10 birth children and one of 13 children, including three adopted, raised by Sundown and her husband, the late Theodore  Sundown.

MaryAnn died about 7:30 p.m., with family surrounding her.

She was very religious, and loved eating raw fish, her son has said. Like many elders, she preferred to speak in Yup'ik, but managed to connect with people from around the world who had come to dance at Cama-i, often using her infectious simile to melt barriers.

But for some reason in her final two weeks, Sundown spoke more English than usual, said Sundown. One of her last messages to young people, who speak mostly English today, was to continue fishing traditionally, including chopping through ice in winter and hanging up strips of salmon to preserve them for the year. She told her family not to mope over her death, but to continue doing the things they love.

She was thirsty on her last day, and Harley Sundown and he kept giving her water through a syringe, even though he worried she might choke. His mother was very religious, and as she passed the family sang to her, “For Those Tears I Died.”

"Come to the water, stand by my side, I know you are thirsty, you won’t be denied," they sang.

Those who knew her and had seen her dance will surely be shouting pamyua, which essentially means "encore" in Yup'ik. 

Encore is a term that spectators unfailingly shouted in unison after her shows.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com