It’s known simply as Celebration. Every other year, thousands of people from across Southeast Alaska convene in Juneau for one of the biggest celebrations of indigenous culture.

The four-day event kicked off Wednesday. Most attendees came by plane or ferry Tuesday, but for dozens of others, the journey started last week.

Nine canoes from across the region reached the shores of Douglas Harbor early Wednesday afternoon, each representing their own community. Many traveled for more than a week, setting up camp along the way.

“We’re going out there to be a part of our culture, in a way that our ancestors have done for years and years and years beyond us,” said Michael Chilton, captain of one canoe. “Being out there is about the experience of being connected, not just with our ancestors, but with the world around and the people around us.”

It’s a tradition that participants say is being revived with each paddle. Jim Zeller, of Angoon, still remembers his first canoe trip to Juneau years ago.

“The elders there were talking about how a canoe hasn’t been there on their shores for a hundred years,” he said. “And so we’ve changed that and we’re trying to change that all over.”

Dozens of dance groups performed Wednesday evening for Celebration’s “grand entrance,” including an Irish dance team from Australia. Members of diverse Southeast tribes shared traditional moves and precious songs in the exchange.

“The songs that they sing are treasures to them, as intangible as they are,” said Bernice Hinchman, of Hoonah. “You don’t want to sing somebody’s song without their permission. To do so, because it’s their treasure, it’s their property.”

Celebration continues through Saturday and includes various workshops on language, art and traditional food contests.

KTVA 11’s Liz Raines can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.

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