Throughout the third and fourth day of Celebration 2018, dance group leaders spoke of the biennial event as a time of renewal, using their moments at the microphone to share words of support, encouragement, and healing with the hundreds of people gathered in Centennial Hall, and thousands more viewers watching the broadcast. They urged tribal members to keep working hard to support cultural revitalization, reminded them to hold each other up, and paid tribute to those who had inspired and helped them succeed.
Following a performance by Tuul gundlas cyaal xaada, dance group leader and Haida master artist Robert Davidson (above) passed on a message from Dr. Walter Soboleff.
“I’ve named him–privately, not publicly–and I call him the Greatest Echo. It’s one of the supernatural beings within the Haida Nation. The echo that he expressed was for us to be strong, and to sing our songs, do our dances, do our ceremonies, and through that, we gain more strength. So I recommend this message to us at the Celebrations hosted by Sealaska Heritage, that we carry on that message.”
The song the group performed to honor Dr. Soboleff featured dancers in two huge masks that made their way around the room, interacting with audience members. The name of the song, “Greatest Echo,” is also the name of Davidson’s monumental artwork on the front of the Walter Soboleff Building.
David R. Boxley of Git Hoan (above), himself a highly regarded artist and the son of master artist David A. Boxley, told a packed house at Centennial Hall on Saturday morning to remember not only the outward-facing displays of culture but less visible practices, particularly indigenous language revitalization.
“The surface of our culture, our amazing art, and our beautiful dancing, it’s just that, it’s the surface. It’s what we’re able to show the rest of the world. It’s everything underneath it that we all need to work toward saving. I ask my generation, I plead with you… to speak your language and practice your culture.”
Git Hoan’s performance Saturday included a song about cultural healing.
“This song is about our contact with Europeans and how people came and said, ‘This isn’t yours any more. You can’t have this. Not only can you not have it, it’s wrong for you to have it.’ What a terrible time for us to go through. We’re learning now, through language revitalization, that that causes such trauma it actually alters your genes. And that trauma is not only passed down through … a feeling in your heart, but generically through generation to generation. We’ve found that heritage language reacquisition can heal that damage.”
Git Hoan, a group known for drawing standing-room-only crowds, also made a surprise appearance Friday night, joining the Mt. St. Elias and Angóon Yátx’i Dancers on stage in a performance that paid tribute to Albert Kookesh, Teiḵweidí of Angoon, and other survivors of cancer and their family members. Several audience members said the combined performance was a Celebration highlight. Frank Jack of Aangóon Yátx’i presented Albert with a staff made by Tlingit carver Jamie Daniels, along with an octopus bag for Albert’s wife, Sally, made by artist Rose Fraker, and a pendant for Lena Woods, who lost her husband to cancer.
“I’ve gotten a lot of honors in my life, but this is the greatest one,” Kookesh said.
Notable guests for Mt. St. Elias’ performance included Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and well-known Tlingit and Koyukon-Athabascan actor Martin Sensmeier of Yakutat. Sensmeier took a moment to offer advice to the young people in the audience, passing on words he’d heard from his uncle.
“You young ones, believe in yourselves,” he said. “The spirit of our ancestors is in you. You can be anything you want to be, anything in this world you want to be… Treat each other with kindness. That’s how we survive, with kindness.”
Luminaries from the world of Indigenous fashion, including well-known Haida designer Dorothy Grant and former Miss Alaska USA Alyssa London (above), were also in attendance Friday, taking part in SHI’s second Celebration Native Fashion Show. SHI President Rosita Worl said in introductory remarks that including the fashion show in Celebration activities reinforces the idea that culture is fluid and ever-adapting.
“One of things we want to show people is that we are not a static culture,” she said. “Our culture is not frozen in time. We’re able to look at things in the outside world and bring them in, make them part of our culture.”
SHI was directly responsible for bringing a fashion show to the Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA) Worl said, now a high-profile event.
Other activities Friday included a Toddler Regalia Review, Baby Raven Reads event, poetry readings in the clan house, and film showings at the Gold Town Theater.
Other events Saturday included a parade through downtown Juneau, a film showing featuring a documentary about Nathan Jackson, and Grand Exit.
(Photos by Nobu Koch)