Celebration starts in Juneau for the first time in four years

The biennial dance-and-culture festival features two lead dance groups, both from Wrangell

By: - June 9, 2022 4:00 am

Celebrants fill the Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus at its dedication June 8, 2022 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Ten-year-old Quinn Davies from Wrangell was “super nervous” to dance for the first time at Celebration – a biennial dance-and-culture festival of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures – happening now in Juneau through June 11.

“I’m using my dad’s regalia that he used when he was in Celebration, and I’m using his hat that he also used,” Davies said on Wednesday in Downtown Juneau.

Siblings Madelyn and Quinn Davies practice for Celebration on stage at Centennial Hall in Juneau on June 8, 2022.
Siblings Madelyn and Quinn Davies practice for Celebration on stage at Centennial Hall in Juneau on June 8, 2022. (Photo by Laura Davies)

His sister Madelyn Davies, 12, said being at Celebration is “kind of mind-blowing.”

“It’s a lot of people. We’re all together. And it’s like, everyone’s showing their regalia and their culture, and it’s really cool to see,” she said.

Both siblings are part of the Kaasitlaan Dancers of Wrangell, one of the lead dance groups for this year’s Celebration. The Davies traveled by ferry from Wrangell to Juneau, arriving at 3:45 a.m. Wednesday. The other lead dance group is Shx’at Kwáan, also of Wrangell.

Together again

Celebration didn’t take place in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So this is the first time since 2018 that communities from around the region and state are gathering in Juneau for the multi-day event. Around 1,200 dancers from 28 dance groups will participate this year, according to Sealaska Heritage Institute, which organizes the large event. 

“It’s so wonderful to be together again,” said Rosita Ḵaaháni Worl, Sealaska Heritage Institute president. She spoke to a large crowd gathered at the grand opening ceremony of the Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus, which kicked off the main schedule of events for Celebration.

Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson was one of several speakers at the arts campus grand opening.

“People have tried to marginalize us for generations to the point where our languages became near extinct, our art had to be hidden, we had to gather and celebrate in hiding. This isn’t in hiding. This is out front, in front of everybody,” he said. “We, our history, our culture is front and center. We’re hearing our languages come back. Our people are having pride. People are taking that energy and putting it towards our arts. Our weavers are thriving again. I want to recognize those that have brought that back, who are fighting everyday for our languages, for our art, for our very way of life.”

This year is Celebration’s 40th anniversary and the theme is “Celebrating 10,000 Years of Cultural Survival.” Worl said that span of time is actually longer. An underwater archaeology research project has been going on for about a year, she said, “and the findings that the scientists found in this last week is that our presence goes back even farther.” Fish weirs found in caves indicate a presence 17,000 years ago, she said. “Watch for that press release.” 

Wrangell takes the lead

Dixie Hutchinson is co-dance group leader of Wrangell’s Shx’at Kwáan dance group. Wrangell was supposed to be the lead group for Celebration 2020, which didn’t take place due to the pandemic. Even with the extra years to prepare, Hutchinson said things still felt down to the wire. 

“It feels like, how come I didn’t have all my buttons sewed on before the four years were up,” she said on the phone Wednesday morning, laughing. 

Hutchinson said the lead dance group brings forward a song, which everyone sings during Grand Entrance Wednesday night and Grand Exit Saturday night.

“For Wrangell, we’re singing the Loon Song that was gifted to us 125 years ago from Kake,” she said. “That part of Celebration is an honor, that they’re going to be singing songs that represent our community.”

Being lead dance group, Hutchinson said, has inspired people in Wrangell to resume dancing.

“To be the lead dance group and be on stage and singing everybody across, it gets people excited and dancing again who may have not danced in a while. We have an elder who’s joining us on stage who hasn’t danced – I don’t know if she danced even growing up,” she said.

About 120 people will be dancing in the Wrangell groups – elders, adults and kids from various locations, like Wrangell, Juneau, elsewhere in the state, Washington, California, Phoenix and even the East Coast.

“Even though they may have grown up there but then moved away, they still remember singing and dancing,” Hutchinson said. “Because people grew up understanding their history, their identity, and that presence of our culture is there, people understand that when Wrangell’s dancing, that’s them.”

The names of different clans of Wrangell are printed on paddles that the dancers carry on stage, “so we’re representing the entire kwan of Wrangell,” Hutchinson said.

Along with dance performances, Celebration features a juried art show and competition, a juried youth art exhibit, a Northwest Coast art market, Native food contests, a toddler regalia review, and a parade through Downtown Juneau. Events will be held in numerous venues, including Centennial Hall, the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, Sealaska Heritage’s Walter Soboleff Building and the Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus.

See a full schedule of events and learn more here.

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Lisa Phu
Lisa Phu

Lisa Phu covered justice, education, and culture for Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. She's also been Public Information Officer for the City and Borough of Juneau, lead facilitator for StoryCorps Alaska based in Utqiagvik, and a teacher in Tanzania and Bhutan. Originally from New York, Lisa is a first generation Chinese American and a mom of two young daughters. She can be contacted at [email protected].