The floorboards of Lyle and Kolene James’ living room vibrated to the rhythm of drum-beats and the foot-falls of more than 40 Woosh.ji.een dancers Sunday afternoon during a high-energy rehearsal for Celebration, Sealaska Heritage Institute’s biennial dance and cultural festival. With their performances only days away, there was much to be done.
Dressed in vibrant red-and-black or red-and-blue regalia and woven cedar bark hats, the women in the group swayed in unison to a song about the tides, moving forward and back in motions expressive of the song’s imagery, their voices undulating in time. As the energy in the crowded room began to build, dance leader Lyle James urged the women to raise their voices.
“The louder you sing, the harder the guys will dance, and the more the audience will feel it,” he said.
One woman carried the group’s youngest member in an infant carrier on her chest. Grandmothers shepherded their grandchildren, calming and reprimanding them when needed. Teenage boys encouraged their younger counterparts to bend their knees more when dancing, and modeled the strong vocal calls characteristic of traditional dances. James instructed the boys to not hold back.
“Don’t be afraid, just do it,” he said.
Woosh.ji.een, founded by the Jameses in 2003, is a family-centered dance group that includes Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian members of many different clans and ages. The group’s diversity is reflected in the dance styles, which blend Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian elements. James speaks all three languages, describing himself as both a teacher and student. For now, he uses Tlingit when leading the group.
“We’re working on different songs from Haida and Tsimshian — that will take some practice,” he said.
Kolene James’ ancestry is a combination of all three tribes, as well as Irish lineage. Her Tlingit name is DaxKilatch, and she is Tlingit Gaanax.adi from the Taantakwaan, adopted by the Coho clan from Wrangell, and Tsimshian Ggan haa da of Metlakatla. Lyle James, whose Tlingit name is Xeetli.éesh, is Kaagwaantaan from Kaax’noowú of Glacier Bay. He is also Filipino and Hawaiian.
Lyle James, who works as a cultural specialist with Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, has always been a dancer.
“It was something I wanted to do because my grandparents did it,” he said. “My great grandfather and my great grandmother, I grew up with them singing and dancing. I can remember very little of them, but one image I do remember is them dancing. Same thing with my father’s side. My father, Owen James, is the one who taught me most everything I know about dancing, and his father (Kelly James). I was definitely blessed having them as my teachers.”
Woosh.ji.een, which means “pulling together” or “working together,” performs a blend of traditional and contemporary songs. The group, which will grow to about 70 as out-of-town dancers arrive, will perform at least twice during this week’s Celebration, once at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Thursday and then at Centennial Hall on Friday. They’ve also been known to perform at Marine Park.
”We try to bring in the newest songs during Centennial Hall and then we do more traditional songs during the ANB Hall performances,” James said. “If we do a Marine Park performance .... that’s where we invite tourists to join, and not to be afraid to try something new.”
When the audience is watching and not participating, James helps them connect to the performance by providing background on each piece. There’s a purpose to the songs they perform, James said. The compositions can describe personal as well as clan history, and are interwoven with other aspects of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian culture. A full understanding may be beyond the casual viewer, but James does what he can to help people relate.
“We try our best to explain the history of each song, so that when you’re listening to the song and you see the hand motions of the songs, you are immersed in that moment, with whoever that composer is. You can understand and you can feel what that person was seeing and feeling at that time.”
One song the dancers will perform at Centennial Hall was written by Kolene James as a gift to the Kaagwaantaan clan in honor of her cousin, who was recently lost at sea. After the dancers finished rehearsing the song, a visibly moved Kolene expressed her thanks for the group’s ability to give it the healing energy it had in her mind.
“You folks just sang my song,” she said, her voice filled with emotion. “I just want to say, ‘Thank you.’ Gunalchéesh. Háw’aa. D’oyk’shn.”
Lyle James said the group performs the song out of respect for Kolene’s family member, a veteran, as well as for all those who work to better their communities, such as he did.
“That song was to commemorate all the veterans, all those who are serving their country, all those who are trying to make a difference within their community by going to school, by making choices that help themselves and help their community,” he said.
As the younger members of the dance group learn the songs, those old and new, they are also learning about language, history and cultural values, and building pride in their identity. Similarly, the Jameses are much more than dance leaders, said Rob Edwardson, a Haida dancer from Ketchikan.
”It’s more than just dance,” said Edwardson, who dances with Woosh.ji.een along with his wife, Sandy, and their daughter, Susie. “They look out for the kids. They are just good role models all around.”
Know & Go
The Wooshji.een Dance Group will perform from 10:20 – 10:50 a.m. Thursday at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall and from 8:15–8:45 p.m. Friday at Centennial Hall.
For more on Celebration, Sealaska Heritage Institute’s biennial Native culture and dance festival, visit http://www.sealaskaheritage.org/celebration/celebration_2014.htm.