More than two-thousand Southeast Alaska Natives danced their way to Juneau’s Centennial Hall on Wednesday evening for Celebration 2014.
The biennial festival is the largest cultural event in the state. Organized by Sealaska Heritage Institute, it brings multiple generations of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people together to celebrate their culture.
The Saanya Kwaan, Cape Fox dancers, were chosen to lead the processional of 50 dance groups in the Grand Entrance.
Harvey Shields is the leader of the Chief welcome dance.
“We are the Saanya Kwaan people and we originate about 50 miles south of Saxman,” he says.
Like other groups here, the Saanya Kwaan range in age from about 5 years old to elders.
“At two and three years old, they put regalia on them and then they start walking around and as they get older they find their place of where they need to be,” Shields says.
The Johnson O’Malley dance group from Wrangell is further down the street.
“I was still sewing on the ferry,” Sandra Churchill says, laughing. She made two button robes this year for Celebration.
“I know we know it’s every two years, and we still put it off ’til the last minute, but it’s worth it,” she says.
Celebration started in 1982 and Churchill has been to all 16 events. Her dance group has been practicing for months for this year’s festivities.
“It’s important for the young children,” she says, “to see the elders and how much they love it and instill that so they will carry it on for us.”
The sidewalks were clogged with people snapping pictures and taking videos. Patricia McGraw and her husband Gary looked like they were on a safari. They had traveled from Pensacola, Florida to Juneau specifically for Celebration.
McGraw grew up in Juneau. She chokes up as she recalls that time.
“When I was young the Native traditions were totally disrespected. And you know kids knew. I was told not to play with the Native kids. But kids know what’s right, what’s wrong, and I’ve always felt quite strongly that they needed their traditions and we needed to honor their traditions,” she says.
And as a non-Native, Celebration is a homecoming McGraw embraced.
At age 75, Ken Grant says his dancing days are over. But he’s danced at many Celebrations with the Mount Fairweather group from Hoonah.
Grant works for the National Park Service and lives in Bartlett Cove, where he has a spectacular view of the Fairweather range on clear days.
His formal Tlingit name even comes from Mount Fairweather.
“It means being proud, and having pride in the mountain and all that it stands for; the songs, the regalia and the stories that come from it,” he says.
Much like Celebration, he says.
“Most of all I think it builds in pride, it builds in passion, which I think is really important. For anything to function properly you need to have that pride and passion,” he says. “And I think that Celebration is a good source for pride and passion.”
Celebration continues through Saturday with dance performances, Native Art, Native language sessions, lectures, a parade and the Grand Exit.