There’s a continuous drumbeat in Juneau. A heartbeat that’s awakened a world of colorful song and ancient dance. Children and elders flood the streets, chanting and moving.
The grand exit of dance groups from Centennial Hall marked the close of one of the largest gatherings of Alaska Native peoples in the state: Celebration.
Known as the renaissance of Alaska Native culture, the biennial event focuses on promoting regional languages, song, and dance to harness traditional knowledge and bring it into future. Today, Celebration draws thousands of people of all ages from across the state and even other countries. But its beginnings in the early 1980s were much more humble.
“It started with the elders who had a meeting, and talking about our culture, and very concerned, you know, that it was going out to sea. They came to the Sealaska board of directors,”said Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. “They said, ‘Our hands are growing weary of holding onto our culture.'”
Together, they created Celebration — a small dance festival — in 1982.
“It was quite small, and it was mostly elders,” said Worl.
Worl says it’s now become a celebration of cultural survival.
“We had moments and periods where our culture and language were repressed, not accepted by missionaries and even civil authorities,” she explained. “So we were punished for speaking our language and our spirituality.”
That’s changed. As Celebration grew, so did an awareness that Alaska Native culture should be showcased in a positive light. Worl remembers the first time Sealaska Heritage Institute broadcast the event on statewide television.
“We had phone calls from all over the state and it actually crashed our telephone lines,” Worl said. “And we had people flying down, it was so exciting for them to see our culture practiced in the open.”
Celebration will be held again in the summer of 2018.