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.

I’m Back

I’ve neglected the blog for the past couple of years – I think I just didn’t feel like I had anything new to say. Or maybe I had a lot to say, but these days it’s often better not to say too much. I’m sticking with nature, travel, and life in a somewhat unconventional place, and I’m posting a little over on Instagram, too – mostly just photos and very few words.

Today I’m going to talk about electrical power.

It’s so easy to take electrical power for granted.  In our homes, we plug things into the 110v wall socket and they work.  On the boat, we’ve learned never to take electric power for granted, and we’re always aware of the power we need versus the source of that power.  In some cases, we’re running on our battery bank (an array of 8 batteries providing over 1800 amp-hours), and we need to constantly monitor the state of our batteries to make sure we don’t discharge them too far.  If we’re plugged into shore power – do we have 50 amps and 220v, or are we using an adapter where we may only have 30 amps and 110v, or even less?  In that case, we may not be able to run everything on the boat, and we have to choose what to prioritize.  Or are we running the generator (providing 220v) and charging our batteries?  The boat has taught us to think about power ALL the time.

Living on an island, we also have to think about electrical power.  Southeast Alaska is an archipelago – a collection of 1,100 islands about 300 miles long, covering almost 17 million acres (mostly the Tongass National Forest). Even the mainland is isolated by mountains, and almost all of it is not connected to the road system – including the state capitol Juneau.  The only way to get around is by boat or by plane.  Much like the small island settlements we visited in the Bahamas, most communities need to run big diesel generators to make electrical power for their town.  Fuel is expensive to purchase, it’s expensive to transport, and running a huge town-sized generator 24/7 isn’t the best for the environment. 

Mitkof Island (where we live) is lucky since we get our power from hydro-electric generators, and Petersburg has been doing that since 1924!  Our mountains have many lakes at altitude, so our town’s early settlers built a dam up on Crystal Lake (1300’ above sea level), and added a 4652’ pipe (penstock) down the steep mountainside to a turbine.  It’s a pretty ambitious feat, and it’s sobering to look up the mountain, imagining the work just to clear a swath of the dense forest in order to work on the very steep slope. 

The original turbine was replaced in 1955, and this year the turbine and penstock were replaced with all new equipment, just in time for the hydro plant’s 100th birthday.  This hydro system provides about 25% of the power needed for our community of 3000 people (and a couple of fish processing plants), and the remainder of the power comes from hydro-electric dams on nearby islands that serve ours and two other communities.  Not only is our hydro environmentally friendly, it’s also very cheap power. We do have some big diesel generators right in town to supply power just in case something in the hydro system fails. The photo below is the 1955 hydro generator that was just replaced.

Here is a photo of part of the new system, which will hopefully last us for another 100 years! The big block in the lower left is the massive counterweight for the valve that controls water flow to the generator. When that valve is closed and the water is bypassing the generator, the ground vibrates and the sound is a loud roar.

Big equipment needs big tools!

For geeky readers, our town’s power needs are over 13 megawatts in the winter, 8 megawatts in the summer (we have two fish processing plants running hard then), and about 6 megawatts in the spring and fall.

It has been a COLD spring and early summer, and pretty rainy so far.  Here it is June 3, and it’s barely over 50F.  We’re in hoodies and jackets, and we can’t wrap our brains around sweltering summer temps in other parts of the country.

We’re less than three weeks away from the summer solstice, when the daylight is the longest – about 18.5 hours.  Right now, the light is increasing by only about a minute per day, but for much of the year we gain or lose daylight at a rate of 5 minutes a day – 35 minutes per week!