Native Alaskans revere their past, present, future.
[by Steve Quin]
The minute Alfie Price wrapped a Chilkat robe around his shoulders, everything for him changed. The robe draped over him like a blanket with fringed edges swirling. He moved across the stage with agility belying the size of this large, gentle Tsimshian man from Juneau.
“The robe belonged to another clan, and I was grateful to be asked to dance in it,” he says. “The robe has its own spirit, its own personality. I felt that when I put it on. I felt obligated to my ancestors to dance to the best of my ability.”
He was among 2,000 dancers of Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida descent to cross the stage in Juneau’s Centennial Hall during an entrance performance that kicked off a four-day, biennial gathering in Juneau called Celebration.
For dancers such as Price, Celebration culminates two years of rehearsing and studying a language that faces extinction if it’s not taught in classes and through songs performed on this grand stage.
The event draws up to 50 dance groups from within the state, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, and Washington, home to the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida. Occasionally groups will come from Hawaii, Australia, or New Zealand.
Many troupes arrive after traveling hundreds of miles by plane and ferry. Regalia—robes, blankets, masks—sometimes need to be barged in separate containers ahead of the dancers to ensure proper care.
Once the dancers and their regalia arrive, this coastal community of 32,000 residents gets immersed into the state’s indigenous culture and history in a way no other Alaska city can offer. It’s done through dance performances on two different stages and on Juneau’s streets. It’s accomplished with songs, some going back thousands of years, others newly written. It’s celebrated with art, either judged in a show, sold in a booth, or worn during dances as– sacred objects known as at.óow. And it’s brought to life through interaction with dancers, accessible and readily willing to share their culture.
“For decades our culture was not out in the open; now you see it everywhere,” says Tlingit leader Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, the event sponsor. “The important lesson right now is trying to get non-Natives to understand what our culture is about because they are important to our survival as well.”
Dancers range in age from 80 to young enough to have their earliest steps be on a performance stage. They are accomplished artists, lawyers, doctors, nurses, bankers, and company executives. They are college students taking advantage of a brief summer respite, some are school-age kids, and some are too young to walk on their own so they get carried in a front pouch by a dancing parent. Some have been dancing since Celebration first took place in 1982. Others remain grateful to those who kicked off the tradition.
For most participants, the dancing, singing, and drumming run much deeper than a pair of 30-minute performances. It’s a cultural recapturing of what was nearly lost to Westernization on the region’s indigenous population.
People such as Worl, plus prominent dance leaders Robert Davidson and David A. Boxley, grew up without their songs and venues to dance. No totem poles stood in parks as they do today. Drums, masks, and headdresses depicting their tribes, clans, and moieties were scarce. Today, they are found in museums, art galleries, and onstage.
Davidson was born in Hydaburg on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island and grew up in the Canadian village of Masset on an island known as Haida Gwaii, which lies immediately south of Prince of Wales. Now 69, Davidson says those who come to Juneau are celebrating the ability to sing and dance publicly and proudly—without the shame felt a generation ago.
“We started from nothing,” says Davidson, an internationally accomplished Haida artist who leads Rainbow Creek Dancers, a group from Vancouver, British Columbia. “I didn’t hear my first Haida song until I was 16, and that was in 1963. In 1969, we didn’t have more than one mask in the village and two drums. Now we have multiple masks. The children are singing these songs, and the songs are heard even before a child is born. That’s a testament to our resilience.”
Like Davidson, Boxley is a Tsimshian artist who integrates his carving and designs into Celebration performances.
The 65-year-old Boxley grew up in Metlakatla, the state’s lone federal reservation on the Annette Islands Reserve and the state’s southernmost community before reaching British Columbia. In 2015, Boxley received a fellowship from the Native Artists and Cultures Foundation to create a new set of masks made of red cedar for dancers at the 2016 performances. Boxley leads Git-Hoan, the People of Salmon, which is among a few Celebration groups that integrate art and dance, one of the group’s signatures, says Worl.