Celebration, a biennial festival of Alaska Native culture, officially starts today. But for a handful of paddlers from multiple Southeast communities it started about a week ago.
Late last week, several canoes — each carrying about 10 people — departed from Angoon headed for Juneau, a trip of roughly 100 miles. Canoes from Kake, Ketchikan, Sitka, Angoon, Hoonah and Yakutat made the trip as a part of a recent (but unofficially sanctioned) Celebration tradition started by the One People Canoe Society in 2008.
“It was a huge undertaking to start off, but that was only because it had never been done before,” the society’s president Doug Chilton said, recalling the first Celebration canoe trip he organized eight years ago.
Chilton and his paddling peers will be arriving in Douglas Harbor today at 11 a.m. The One People Canoe Society expects more than 300 hundred people to show up to welcome the canoes. The event is scheduled to last until 1 p.m.
Since the inaugural trip, planning the event — no small logistical feat — has become easier as more communities have become interested in taking part, Chilton said. And that’s exactly why he helped to start it.
In 2002, Chilton was invited to a canoe race in Washington, but the race ended up being more of an intertribal canoe journey, he said. After seeing how paddling had revived a significant aspect of Native culture there, Chilton said he became determined to organize a similar event for the Native communities of Southeast Alaska.
“I wanted to spark the flame that’s been there forever,” Chilton said. “People say we lost our culture; we lost our language. But they didn’t go away. They’re still there; they’re smoldering embers, and we can relight them.”
Chilton is not alone in this goal. Celebration, too, was created in the spirit of revitalizing Native culture. During the four-day festival, which runs from today until Saturday, there will be dance performances, language-speaking workshops, art exhibits, regalia reviews, film showings and other events all centered around Native culture.
Now in its fifth Celebration, the Chilton’s canoe trip is running into a good problem. There are more people interested in paddling than there is space on the canoes, according to Chilton and One People Canoe society member Yarrow Vaara.
This year, the Alaska Tour Association is lending canoes to the society for those interested in paddling them. Vaara isn’t paddling on the trip this year but she has in years past, and said the trip is “a kind of cultural resurgence.”
“You become one with the element,” she said, referring to water. “You don’t hear a motor; you hear the water. It’s life changing for a lot of people, exposing yourself to the elements like that.”
But paddling isn’t the only aspect of the trip that is helping to keep Southeast Alaska Native culture active. Most people carved their own paddles at workshops in their communities to prepare for the trip. And though the majority of the boats for this year’s trip are made of molded fiberglass, wooden canoes will be making the trip due largely to the efforts of Haines carver Wayne Price.
Price is carving two 40-foot-long healing dugouts for the Huna Tlingit’s ceremonial return to Glacier Bay later this summer. One of those canoes was supposed to make its maiden voyage during the trip to Celebration, but it wasn’t quite ready in time. Paddlers will be using two other wooden canoes created by Price — a 28-foot dugout named “Jibba,” and a strip canoe — to make the long trip to Juneau.
Price is skippering Jibba. He is making the trip with his son, Steven Price, as well as James (Gooch Éesh) Hart and Zack (Tlél Tooch Tláa.aa) James, who’ve been apprenticing under Price, helping him carve the 40-foot Hoonah dugouts for the past six months.
Like paddling, Price sees carving as an important aspect of Native culture that must be passed down.
“Culturally and historically our people had a strong connection with wood,” he said. “It was our dugouts, it was our clothes, it was our home, it was in our stories, it was our totems, and that connection shouldn’t be broken.”
That’s why Price is training his son — and James and Hart — to carve dugouts, a task that Chilton said gets to the heart of the canoe trip.
“That’s the end goal, to get to the point where everybody is doing something in each community, getting the youth and the elders involved,” Chilton said. “Without our elders we’re not going to know our history and without our youth, it’s not going to carry on; we need to have them all involved in one way or another.”
Hart, who paddled in Jibba with Price, said that he is glad that he is able to learn to carve and to paddle.
“I’ve won a state championship for basketball, and I’d say arriving for Celebration in a traditional wood canoe beats it,” he said. “Just the raw emotion of everybody singing and dancing. Seeing the culture alive is a sacred feeling I hold pretty near to my heart.”
• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.