Alaska Native New Year’s celebration held in Anchorage
Although it’s a tradition almost two decades old in Anchorage, it’s simply called “The New Year’s Party,” held on the first afternoon of the year.
David Chanar, who is a Yup’ik from Toksook Bay, and his wife, Pearl, an Athabascan from Minto, started this annual gathering in 1996 because they missed the warmth and intimacy of village celebrations.
The first parties drew mostly family members, but over the years the gatherings evolved into a community event, bringing Native groups from different cultures together.
About 150 people turned out for this year’s party at the Our Lady of Guadalupe parish hall.
There was one Yup’ik phrase the Chanars often repeated as people arrived: “Quyana tailuci,” which means “thank you for coming.” It was also accompanied with a warm embrace.
Pearl Chanar says she’s glad to see the gathering grow, because it promotes healthy living. There’s no alcohol served at these gatherings, she says.
“Sobriety is a big thing that we support, the children seeing that they can have a good time without going out and partying and getting drunk — to be sober and have fun,” Pearl Chanar said.
Young people were kept pretty busy setting up chairs and tables, as well as serving food. Before the celebration got underway at 2 p.m., they seemed happy to be useful.
“It’s good for them to have something to do,” Pearl Chanar said.
But Chanar also says many young, urban-raised Natives demonstrate a lack of knowledge about Native potlatch traditions. They come to feast, but often don’t bring any food.
She has another pet peeve.
“When it’s time to eat, we say, ‘Elders first,’” Pearl Chanar said. “We’re talking about gray-haired people walking with canes. And the young people will jump up and get in line.”
Chanar says such behavior would be unacceptable in a village, so the Anchorage New Year’s party gives children exposure to Native protocol.
At Thursday’s gathering, the elders were at the front of the line, and there were many wild foods to feast upon — such as bearded seal soup, black duck soup — as well as a rich venison stew and blackfish smothered in seal oil. There was also a lot of salmon, both baked and dried. And there was plenty of Western fare: Rice and noodle casseroles, hot dogs and potato chips, too.
David Chanar says the food is just part of the celebration. He’s also filled with a sense of community that reminds him of home.
“The highlight is just getting together with — and just being with people to bring in the new year,” David Chanar said.
He plays guitar in a band called “Pilot Bread,” named after a hard flour cracker that’s a staple of the Bush diet. The group plays a lot of traditional Athabascan fiddle tunes and country music.
One of the crowd favorites is a song the group created for a New Year’s dance, where couples move in a circle and come to the center to shout, “Happy New Year!”
It’s a variation of the Athabascan circle dance. David Chanar says it’s easy to learn, so all the different Native cultures can dance together.
There were also several Yup’ik dance groups. Mothers rocked their babies to the rhythm of the drums. Little girls and boys ran out to the stage to copy the dancers’ motions.
Danny Jacobus — who moved to Alaska from the Lower 48 decades ago and married into a Native family — says the celebration brings back good memories.
He says he was lucky to live in rural Alaska at a time when Native traditions were strong and people took care of each other, especially elders.
“It’s one of the biggest things I’ve ever seen, and I don’t see it in our culture,” said Jacobus about the way elders are revered for their wisdom. “I sit and talk to a lot of elders, because I learn from them.”
He says he looks forward to “The New Year’s Party” because it brings home what’s most important in life — sharing, caring and connecting.
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