Over the past two decades, I’ve watched a lot of Celebration events. I’ve watched them while pregnant, and with babies on my back, while keeping half an eye on errant toddlers and with (and without) my sulky teenagers. Every year I’ve been thrilled by the visual richness of Southeast Alaska Native culture, and grateful for the chance to appreciate it first-hand in such a dramatic way.
But this year, as I watched the grand entrance last Thursday, I was newly stunned by the artistry of what was in motion in front of me. I even found myself slack-jawed with amazement at a few points.
After watching for a little while, I asked the people around me, “Does this year seem more dramatic to you than usual?”
“Not really,” they responded. “It’s always this good.”
As I thought about my reaction, I realized that my appreciation for what I was seeing had become much deeper over the past two years as a result of my job — through talking to artists and listening to lectures and reading others' articles about Alaska Native art. This year, when I saw a Tlingit dancer wearing an unusual vibrant green and blue Chilkat robe, leggings, apron, and headband, I thought about the many, many hours of weaving that went into all those separate pieces, the hands that carefully wove each color into the final design, perhaps at some points undoing weeks of work if it was not perfect to their eyes. When I looked at a dancer’s spruce-root hat, my mind went back to what I’d learned about the harvesting process — long and arduous — eliciting images and smells from a forest I'd never been to. As I watched a Haida woman in a beautiful jade green and black button blanket with a frog design, I thought about what I’d learned about clan emblems and their significance. And through it all I thought about all the artists I’d met or listened to — Della Cheney, Clarissa Rizal, Ed and Percy Kunz, Florence Sheakley and many more — who have been so generous with what they know, and allowed me a much greater understanding of a culture I am not part of.
I still have a lot to learn.
Though my position as Arts editor gives me greater access to Alaska Native artists than most Juneauites may enjoy, it’s worth noting that many if not most of the events I attend are open to the public. I encourage those whose knowledge of Alaska Native art forms might be as limited as mine once was to go out and learn more, read, talk to artists, visit museums, maybe even take a class or workshop. Take advantage of these opportunities and let the next Celebration reach more than your eyes.
• Amy Fletcher is editor of the Arts & Culture section, which publishes every Thursday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.