Saanya Kwáan takes center role in Celebration 2014

Harvey Shields remembers attending the first Celebration in 1982 as a member of the Saanya Kwáan (Cape Fox) Dancers, led by his mother, Martha Shields.


More than three decades later, he’s here to lead Saanya Kwáan with his sister, Sarah Abbot, as official hosts of Celebration 2014. Shields said the group has been preparing since Celebration 2012, when their role as hosts was announced by Sealaska Heritage Institute.

“When we learned we’d be the host for this year, we started our fundraisers to get as many dancers as we could,” he said. “Our dancers are in Anchorage, in Juneau, in Seattle, as far away as Virginia and some in California. So we include them in on this if they can make it.”

More than 100 dancers answered the call, and on Wednesday the large group made their first appearance, leading the Grand Entrance procession down Willoughby Avenue. They will also lead the Grand Exit procession Saturday, and were scheduled to perform Thursday evening at Centennial Hall and Friday afternoon at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall. Shield said the group focuses on traditional songs he learned from his mother.

“We do the songs that have been handed down to us,” he said.

The Saanya Kwáan Dancers hail from Saxman, two miles south of Ketchikan, where they perform regularly in the Beaver Clan House.

Shields, born and raised in Saxman, grew up with the dance group, and said he began dancing seriously at age 9 or 10. Now he is teaching his grandchildren to dance and considers a focus on youth a priority, continuing in the traditions his mother established.

“We try to put (the youngest children) up front where we can show the people that we always teach our younger ones what we are doing,” Shields said. “My mother has always done that and we’re still doing that to this day. Even if they’re not dancing, and they’ve got their regalia on and they’re not taking it off, that’s good.” He laughed. “And as they get older, they keep coming and they know their place and they start learning these songs and dances.”

Outside of Celebration, the group stays busy with frequent performances, especially in the summer.

“We try to keep our dance group moving,” he said. “We do a lot of events for various people in town ... and with the tourists we do that all summer.”

Shields also serves as mayor and clan leader in Saxman, a busy tourist destination that draws more than 100,000 visitors a year, according to the Ketchikan Daily News. In addition to the clan house, the village is well-known for its large totem pole park and carving shed, the Edwin DeWitt Carving Center, where Tlingit master carver Nathan Jackson and Haida carver Donnie Varnell can sometimes be found at work. In the clan house next door, Shields joins his group in dancing for the tourists whenever he can.

“We have enough dancers that we can run it in shifts,” he said. “If I get the time and chance, which I try to find, I go down there and help.”

In spite of their frequent performances, the group put a lot of time into Celebration rehearsals, partly to ensure their youngest dancers were up to speed.

“We do that for the younger kids to show them and let them know exactly what needs to be done,” Shield said. “If we don’t, they’re not going to learn.”

Shields said in addition to their performances and role as hosts, he was looking forward to spending time with other dance groups and attendees to Celebration 2014.

“We always look at having fun with all the dance groups,” he said. “We say, enjoy yourselves, enjoy the songs and dances, have fun and just put everything into it.”

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