As soon as dance leader David A. Boxley strikes his deer-hide drum, he’s ready to celebrate.

What follows is one of nearly 50 dance group performances spanning four days on the main stage at Juneau’s Centennial Hall.

The shows represent a journey led by nearly 2,000 dancers into this region’s Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures and centuries-old histories.

These stories get told with subtle differences from one group to the next, and they are conveyed through dance, song and art.

The biennial event is called Celebration, and it’s the state’s – and some believe, the nation’s – largest cultural Native event.

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Many troupes travel hundreds of miles by plane and ferry, as no roads lead in or out of the state’s capital city – just to dance. Regalia – headdresses, blankets, hand-carved masks – can get barged-in in separate containers a week ahead of the dancers to ensure proper care.

Last weekend, thousands came to Juneau from the Southeast region - and as far as Kodiak and Anchorage - from neighboring British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, and from Washington.

Depending on the size of the group and the distance traveled, it can cost as much as $20,000 to perform 30 minutes each on two stages and, weather permitting in this unpredictable rainforest climate, on Juneau’s streets.

“It’s a cultural reclamation," says Boxley, the Metlakatla-born Tsimshian leader of the Seattle-based group Git-Hoan, whose artwork and totem poles is in galleries, museums and culture centers worldwide.

“It’s also a reunion,” he said. “I get to say hi to people I haven’t seen in two years, and I get a lot of energy watching the dance groups here, but what we are celebrating is that our culture is continuous.

“We are being successful in passing it on to the next generation. The idea of trying to revitalize Tsimshian culture has been a big motivation for me for years. Writing songs and singing our language, combining it with our ability to produce art. In the old days, that’s what they did.”

Once here, this Southeast Alaska coastal community of 32,000 residents gets immersed into the indigenous culture and history in a way few Alaska cities can offer.

The performances teem with energy featuring fluid, athletic movements across a stage by members as old as 80 - and young enough to have their earliest steps before a packed house.

These stories come to life through interaction with dancers, accessible and readily willing to share their heritage. This also leads to a recurring question: What’s being Celebrated? 

“What may look like just a dance, it’s so much more,” said Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, the cultural arm of Sealaska Corp., which sponsors the event. “It has spiritual dimensions; it has social dimensions; it’s about relationships between the individuals and their clans.”

Worl, who was part of the first Celebration in 1982, says the event represents cultural survival honoring not only Elders for their gifts of wisdom but also ancestors for their songs and designs.

It’s not just a celebration, she says, it’s also an inclusive learning environment where dancers, as well as those simply attending, learn about care for cultural objects, plus the history, stories and values embedded in each piece of regalia and the songs.

“For decades, our culture was not out in the open; now you see it everywhere,” Worl said. “The important lesson right now is bringing our culture out into the open, trying to get non-Natives to understand what our culture is about because they are important to our survival, as well.”

The indigenous songs get performed to the beat of deer-hide drums being struck and sung in words that don’t need translation to sense the passion. Some songs date thousands of years; others are newly written just for Celebration.

Each song performance serves to remind those attending of how fragile the languages are. There are fewer than 10 fluent Haida and Tsimshian language speakers in Alaska; fewer than 100 fluently speak Tlingit. 

“It’s a challenge to continually expand our choice of masks, dances and songs,” said Robert Davidson, an Alaska-born and Canadian-raised Haida artist, who, like Boxley, has works placed in museums and galleries worldwide. “Celebration is really all the different groups, sharing the same stage and honoring the songs they have inherited and bringing life to them again.

“The songs are dormant until they get sung. A lot of times I could be tired when I come to a practice. After singing a few songs, then my energy comes back. I know that every Celebration, I go home with new inspiration.

“We inherited the songs from my grandparents’ generation. So, when I say reclaiming them and making them ours, some of the meanings of the songs that survived, I couldn’t identify with. That made me think that each succeeding generation has a responsibility to give meaning.”

Eight years ago, Boxley’s son, David R. Boxley, challenged groups to write a new song in their language for the next Celebration. Each Celebration – each chance he gets, really – he implores Alaska Natives to speak their language as much as possible. He did so again at this year’s Celebration

“Learning our languages now when there are so few speakers left is hard,” said the younger Boxley, who, along with Gavin Hudson and Kandi McGilton, cofounded the Haayk Foundation, a Metlakatla non-profit organized to preserve the Tsimshian language, Sm’algyax.

“Don’t wait,” he says. “Use it every second you can. All of what we are doing here isn’t going to mean a darn thing if we let our languages die.”

The Boxleys and Davidson are among a handful of dance leaders whose groups heavily incorporate masks into their performances: those depicting ravens, eagles; killer whales; frogs; wolves and salmon. The Boxleys carve most of their masks; Davidson produces masks with his brother Reggie.

In 2015, the elder Boxley earned a fellowship from the Native Artists and Cultures Foundation, which enabled him to create a new set of masks made of red cedar for dancers. Each new song could mean a new set of masks.

“Our masks are solid connections with our past,” Boxley said. “If you look in natural history museums all over the world, they are chock full of every kind of mask you see us using.

 “I want people to have a good time, be amazed. The masks achieve that. One of the things about masks that I’ve always tried to teach the dancers [is] don’t be someone wearing the mask-- be the mask. Be the mask.”

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