Thousands return to Juneau for Celebration after a pandemic hiatus

It’s been four years since the biennial event was last held, a gap that’s seen the loss of elders and a pause on important cultural rites for Southeast Alaska’s Indigenous peoples.

JUNEAU — By the time the paddlers pulled their long wooden canoes toward the beach in Auke Bay, more than 300 people were cheering and chanting them in. The rowers came from across Southeast Alaska’s inlets and islands, recreating an ancient ritual as clans from across Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian lands and waters gathered with family.

Last week marked the 40th anniversary of Celebration, a biennial festival drawing thousands to Juneau every other year to honor and exalt the region’s Indigenous peoples. The pandemic canceled it in 2020, taking a toll on Southeast Indigenous cultures, where communal gathering is a central tenet.

“This is who we are. Our natural state is to be together, celebrating and loving our people,” said La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, president of the First Alaskans Institute, who came ashore in Auke Bay after more than a week paddling a canoe with a crew from Kake.

“You should feel my ‘canoe guns,’” she said with a big laugh, offering up her bicep. “They’re pretty solid, and they’ll be gone in a month.”

On the beach receiving the canoes, the atmosphere was a cross between a giant family picnic and a grand parade. Vests, robes and woven blankets bore icons of bears, beavers, eagles, ravens, killer whales, thunderbirds, coho salmon and frogs. It smelled of woodsmoke, bug dope and the tide. Methodical drum-pounding and call-and-response bellows back-and-forth of “HOO-HAA” sounded as playful as they did martial, like the home team was about to take the field. Nephews and grandsons brought aunties and grandmas boxed meals along with blankets to buffer their knees against the breeze. All over were kids playing, chucking stones at the sea or scampering shin-deep into the water with shrieks.

“This is energy. As soon as we heard the people at the beach, our energy came back,” said Susettna King, who’d joined in with the Kake canoers at Funter Bay.

“This is kind of like the healing journey. Helping us pull through COVID, and it meant a lot of different things to people because we’ve lost so many loved ones to COVID. Or a lot of our elders were isolated for too long,” King said. “This means a lot, that we’re actually able to move forward with life and not have to stand still anymore.”

A canoe paddled exclusively by military veterans was met ashore by a group of former service members serving as color guard, their outfits a mix of cedar hats, combat patches, sealskin vests, war medals and Xtratuf boots. After a group of women sang a warrior song, a young lady played taps on a silver bugle as a folded flag was presented to Jim Zeller on behalf of Richard Calvin, a Southeast veteran who recently passed away, and with whom Zeller had long shared a canoe on past journeys. At the last minute, Zeller stepped in to helm the veterans boat on this year’s trip.

“I skippered them in, and I took care of them,” he said.

Like the other canoes to land Monday evening, Zeller’s crew passed the beach chanting, and was met with boisterous salutations from the beach. The eight vessels arced back into the bay and danced slowly in the surf before joining into a tight flotilla, eventually invited ashore by the Aak’w Kwáan clan of Juneau.

“Take a look around,” Zeller said of the landing, gesturing toward the crowd. “That’s how it feels. It was like that. Mass people, mass smiles. It’s amazing.”

Around 120 people attended the first Celebration in 1982. Now, according to Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon, it pulls closer to 5,000. The event puts Southeast Indigenous culture in the center of the state’s capital. That’s especially true this year, as the festivities helped inaugurate a new building in the heart of downtown, the Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus.

“The last time we gathered this was a parking lot,” said Sealaska Corp. Board Chair Joe Kaaxúxgu Nelson during a dedication ceremony Tuesday.

The building houses several spaces dedicated to teaching traditional Northwest Coast art forms like basketry, weaving and wood carving, both in-person and through digital workshops. Out front stands a totem pole carved all the way around with figures from all three Southeast Alaska Indigenous groups, the only one of its kind in Alaska.

Group effort

Celebration is intended to be a culmination of efforts spent in the intervening years being Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.

“It’s the entirety of our culture ... packed into three days,” said Sealaska Corp. CEO Anthony Mallott.

That means the hundreds of dancers performing on the main stage in Centennial Hall are showcasing not only the songs trusted to them over generations, but the hours spent practicing them, too. It means the furs, feathers and artistry featured in the Toddler Regalia Review are seen as a testament to a grandmother’s sewing skills, a mother’s beadwork and an uncle’s hunting abilities.

“It’s a whole group effort for sure,” said Adanchilla Pauls.

The recent high school graduate had arrived in Juneau from her home across the border in White Horse at 2 a.m. Thursday, but had been up early to join her dance group at the morning’s first performance. Midday on a downtown street she was adorned from headdress to mukluk with items hand-fashioned by herself and her family.

“My button blanket was made by my dad. And the crest has one figure and then another figure inside, so it’s kinda like him holding me while we dance,” said Pauls, who has her own design business.

Nearby, judges convened to announce winners in the Native foods contest, a blind taste-test of traditional foods in three separate categories.

“The underlying basis of our culture comes from our environment,” said Rosita Kaaháni Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, which organizes Celebration.

“This is my first time entering this,” said Donna James, who won the dry fish competition.

“Mine, too,” said Sharon Olsen, winner for best seal oil.

Typically at Celebration time both women are too busy fishing to attend.

Olsen is meticulous rendering her seal oil, running it multiple times through cheesecloth to strain out any flavors that might pack too pungent a punch. Her test of whether it’s done enough is if she can see through it, in which case it’s worthy of trading or using on her herring eggs and boiled potatoes.

“My husband and I pretty much took care of our parents. And if we didn’t go out and get the seal and the fish and the cockles and the gumboots and everything, they would never have it, 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 to enter the food competition until she was urged by family and friends. Winning felt like a tribute to her late father-in-law, Kenneth Willard Sr., who taught her his recipe for drying salmon.

“I always listened to him, what to do, and I’m very honored to have learned from him,” James said. “He had passed last year. And now he’s smiling down, I know.” James’ husband, Kenneth Willard Jr., took second place.

Celebration ended Saturday.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story described the canoe chant as “Hee-HAA.”

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, politics, drugs, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the paper he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.