Every other year, the Sealaska Heritage Institute hosts a culture and dancing event called Celebration, for the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian native people in the region. The event was started in 1982 as a way to try and preserve tribal language, stories, dances, and songs after decades of cultural oppression and forced assimilation that the U.S. and Canadian governments imposed on native and First Nations people. Children were taken from their families and placed in native boarding schools, where they were given new names and were forbidden to speak their language or possess any trappings of their culture. This heinous practice began in the later 1800s and ran until 1978 – a dark stain on our countries. I encourage people to look into the history for themselves so that we will never repeat such things. My heart breaks at the thought that the native people suffered so much discrimination for so long.

We’ve attended several Celebrations over the past 10 years, and each one is bigger and more vibrant than the last. It’s like a giant “family reunion,” and the energy, pride, excitement, and joy is infectious. Everyone is welcome. Dancers wear “regalia” – button blankets, vests, tunics, headbands, and all kinds of other things that display their tribe, clan, and house affiliations – and the colors and decorations and creativity are spectacular. Many items of regalia are family heirlooms, lovingly made and passed to future generations.

I’m always moved by the inclusive spirit of the Alaska native people. They revere both the young and the elders, and everyone who wants to participate can do so, regardless of their ability.

My very favorite part of the 4-day event is the Toddler Regalia fashion show. This year there were quite a few little ones, and the narrator shared each little one’s english name as well as their tribal name, and she explained the significance of each part of their regalia – which relative made it or where it came from, what materials were used, and information about their clan and house symbols. This sweet little gal stole the show!

We enjoyed days of drumming and dancing, and the stories of the various dances were so interesting to hear. Some dances involved special masks, and the dancers often imitated ravens, orcas, salmon, or other animals. The variety was fabulous, and the mimicry was excellent.

I loved the energy level of the dancers, and the narrators often pointed out how much their group had been practicing. Some of the songs are quite old, and they are sung with permission from the person or family that wrote them. The best part is that ALL ages participated, babies strapped to parent’s chests, school children, adults, and elders – some in wheelchairs. This gentleman in the photo below is 90, and at one point he insisted on getting out of his chair with great difficulty, and dancing (with a strong person on either side of him) – it was very moving, and the crowd roared in response!

In some cases, a person might carry a large photograph of a relative who has died – so they can participate too.

We’re grateful for the chance to continue to learn about the local native culture and history, and their beautiful spirit of cooperation and balance. After their culture was nearly extinct, it’s encouraging to see such a resurgence, but it’s obvious that it will take a long time for healing after more than a century of oppression.

In the photo above, you’ll notice the red hand painted across the dancer’s mouth. This symbolizes the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women, still very much a problem today.

Thank you to all who shared their stories, drumming, dancing, kindness, and smiles. Celebration was, once again, a joyous event, and we hope that more and more people get the opportunity to learn about the native culture here, and by doing so, learn more about themselves.

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