JUNEAU — As the paddlers pulled their long wooden canoes towards the beach at Auke Bay, more than 300 people cheered and chanted them. The rowers came from the coves and islands of southeast Alaska, recreating an ancient ritual as clans from across Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian lands and waters joined together as a family.
This week marked the 40th anniversary of Celebration, a biannual festival that draws thousands of people to Juneau every two years to honor and celebrate the region’s indigenous peoples. The pandemic undid it in 2020, wreaking havoc on Indigenous cultures in the Southeast, where community gathering is a central tenet.
“This is who we are. Our natural state is to be together, to celebrate and to love our people,” said La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, president of the First Alaskans Institute, who landed in Auke Bay after more of a week paddling in a canoe with a crew of Kake.
“You should feel my ‘canoe guns’,” she said with a big laugh, offering her bicep. “They’re pretty solid, and they’ll be gone in a month.”
On the beach receiving the canoes, the atmosphere was halfway between a giant family picnic and a big parade. Vests, robes and woven blankets featured icons of bears, beavers, eagles, crows, killer whales, thunderbirds, coho salmon and frogs. It smelled of wood smoke, bug drugs and the tide. The methodical drumbeats and call-and-response bellows of “Hee-HAA” sounded as playful as they were martial, as if the home team were about to take the field. The nephews and grandsons brought the aunts and grandmothers lunch boxes and blankets to protect their knees from the breeze. Everywhere children were playing, throwing stones into the sea or trotting up to their shins in the water with cries.
“It’s energy. As soon as we heard the people at the beach, our energy came back,” said Susettna King, who had joined Kake’s canoeists in Funter Bay.
“It’s kind of like the healing journey. Helping us through COVID, and that meant a lot of different things to people because we lost so many loved ones to COVID. Or a lot of our elders have been isolated for too long,” King said. “It means a lot, that we are actually able to move on in life and not have to stand still.”
A canoe paddled exclusively by military veterans was greeted ashore by a group of former military personnel serving as color parties, their attire a mixture of cedar hats, combat patches, sealskin vests, war medals and Xtratuf boots. After a group of women sang a war song, a young woman tap danced on a silver bugle as a folded flag was presented to Jim Zeller on behalf of Richard Calvin, a veteran of the South East recently deceased and with whom Zeller had long shared a canoe on past voyages. At the last minute, Zeller stepped in to lead the veterans’ boat on this year’s trip.
“I took them and took care of them,” he said.
Like the other canoes that landed on Monday evening, Zeller’s crew sailed past the beach singing and were greeted with loud beach greetings. The eight ships returned to the bay and danced slowly in the waves before joining a tight flotilla, eventually being invited ashore by the Aak’w Kwáan clan of Juneau.
“Take a look,” Zeller said of the touchdown, gesturing to the crowd. “That’s how it feels. It was like that. Mass people, mass smiles. It’s incredible.”
About 120 people attended the first celebration in 1982. Today, according to Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon, it is approaching 5,000. The event puts Southeast Indigenous culture at the center of the capital of the ‘State. This is all the more true this year as the festivities made it possible to inaugurate a new building in the heart of downtown, the Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus.
“The last time we met was in a parking lot,” Sealaska Corp. Chairman of the Board Joe Kaaxúxgu Nelson said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday.
The building houses several spaces dedicated to teaching traditional Northwest Coast art forms like basket weaving, weaving and woodcarving, both in person and through digital workshops. In the front stands a totem pole carved all around with figures of the three Southeast Alaska Native groups, the only one of its kind in Alaska.
The celebration is meant to be the culmination of efforts in the intervening years as Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.
“It’s our entire culture…packed into three days,” said Anthony Mallott, CEO of Sealaska Corp.
This means that the hundreds of dancers who perform on Centennial Hall’s Main Stage showcase not only the songs entrusted to them over generations, but also the hours spent practicing them. This means that the furs, feathers, and artistry featured in the Toddler Regalia Review are considered a testament to a grandmother’s sewing skills, a mother’s beadwork, and an uncle’s hunting abilities.
“It’s a group effort for sure,” Adanchilla Pauls said.
The recent high school graduate had arrived in Juneau from her home across the border in White Horse at 2 a.m. on Thursday, but had risen early to join her dance group for the first morning performance. At noon, on a downtown street, she was decked out in a mukluk hairstyle with handmade items made by herself and her family.
“My button blanket was made by my father. And the crest has a figure and then another figure inside it, so it’s kind of like he’s holding me while we dance,” said Pauls, who has his own design company.
Nearby, judges gathered to announce the winners of the Indigenous Foods Contest, a blind taste test of traditional foods in three separate categories.
“The underlying basis of our culture comes from our environment,” Rosita said. Kaaháni Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, which organizes Celebration.
“This is my first time participating,” said Donna James, who won the dried fish contest.
“Mine too,” said Best Seal Oil winner Sharon Olsen.
As a rule, at the time of the celebration, the two women are too busy fishing to attend.
Olsen meticulously renders his seal oil, running it through cheesecloth multiple times to filter out any flavors that might pack too much of a pungent punch. Her test of whether it’s done enough is if she can see through it, in which case it’s worth trading or using on her Herring Roe and Boiled Potatoes.
“My husband and I pretty much took care of our parents. And if we didn’t go for the seal, the fish, the cockles, the wellies and everything, they never would, because they got old,” Olsen said.
Now her grandson, whose graduation she was in town to celebrate, hunts seals for her.
James didn’t think about entering the food contest until she was invited by her family and friends. Winning felt like a tribute to his late stepfather, Kenneth Willard Sr., who taught him his recipe for curing salmon.
“I always listened to him, what to do, and I’m very honored to have learned from him,” James said. “He passed away last year. And now he’s smiling, I know. James’ husband, Kenneth Willard Jr., took second place.
The party ended on Saturday.