Paddling for unity, for ancestors

There was a nearly tangible buzz of energy Friday evening as a number of Juneau’s Alaska Native population and friends prepared to receive two canoes with traditional song and dance. The canoes were paddled by the One People Canoe Society, which is made up of more than 100 members now, Alicia Chilton said. Chilton is one of the incorporators of the non-profit group, which started 10 years ago.


“We are growing so fast right now. With the paddle to Celebration we have reached out to eight different communities throughout Southeast Alaska who will be paddling with us (in June).” Chilton said.

The paddlers, once they arrived at the dock, proved diverse. Donning life vests and beaded traditional garb, children to elders, redheaded to raven-haired, they climbed onto the dock from the canoes while members of the Yees Ku.oo dance group beat drums and chanted. Most of the paddlers joined in the chanting and dancing, making their way up the ramp to where the Maritime Festival was held at Marine Park.

“Having people unite, no matter what their race is, or their gender, really brings unity and we believe that canoes and language will merge together and help keep traditions, not just here in Southeast — the Tlingits, Haida and Tshimshians, but from all over Alaska to help keep our culture alive…” Chilton said.

“(Our mission is) to make sure everyone knows about their culture, through singing, Native arts, dancing, performing, providing the opportunity also for our younger generations, sharing all of the knowledge we have from our uncles and our grandfathers that are still here with us today. It’s important that we share that knowledge.”

Once the group had made its way to the sheltered area in Marine Park, they moved into formation to perform, though not before thanks were given for their welcome.

Carolyn Noe, a founder of Yees Ku.oo, explained its origin to the crowd of people, including cruise ship passengers from across the globe.

“Yees Ku.oo means new beginnings, new people. We had the help of Clarence Jackson when it came time to translate and say Yees Ku.oo. That seemed a great fit for a new name for the new group.”

It was founded about a decade ago, though many have been dancing together for much longer.

“We are like family and support each other with encouragements. We all have a mutual enjoyment of dancing and singing together. Some of us in the group have been together some 18 years, others are new to the group.” Noe said, before introducing her uncle, John Martin.

“We’re not just a tribal group who travel, like our grandfathers’ people.” Martin said.

“We’re following in the footsteps of our grandfathers’ people. We have a lot of healing to do among our people, our youngsters, we need to continue to keep our language alive, also our songs, our dancing, traditions, artwork and so forth. We have a lot of people joining the One People Canoe Society, I’d like to take the time now, we’re going to dance for the people that welcomed us here this afternoon.” he said.

Martin invited Wilbur Brown to speak. Brown is involved in the SouthEast Regional Health Consortium’s suicide prevention program, a group which will join the canoe journey from around Southeast Alaska to Juneau for Celebration.

“We’re doing work in suicide prevention and I just wanted to say the One People Canoe Society and some other communities… will be paddling from Kake, Angoon and Hoonah to Juneau for Celebration, so that’s gonna be over 136 miles. And we want to do that for awareness for suicide prevention so that this doesn’t happen in our communities anymore. We want to show our young people that we do care for them and that we are here for them and we also want to show the strength and unity of our culture. We can’t move a canoe by one person alone, we have to do it as a team. Gunalchéesh.” Brown said.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz was part of the “canoe family” as Martin put it. They paddled from Douglas across the channel to Juneau.

“Here in Alaska, especially Southeast, the transportation was by canoes, if you wanted to get to your summer camps or your winter camps, canoes were our route.” Chilton said. “We’re just trying to honor our ancestors, our grandfathers and keeping our culture alive.”

Yees Ku.oo performed a number of traditional songs, the first an Aleut seabird song.

“Many years ago when the Aleut people were relocated throughout Alaska during WWII… during their time in Southeast Alaska they intermingled with the people here, the Tlingit people and shared their songs and dances…” Nancy Barnes said, introducing the song and dance, “During the Alaska Federation of Nations convention in 1995 an Aleut group was performing one of their songs and one of the leaders made a speech thanking the Tlingit people for teaching them many of their songs back. The Tlingits asked permission to use these songs and, in doing so, preserved these songs which may have otherwise been lost.”

And through song, dance, storytelling, art and paddling, Alaska Native culture is still a part of life in Southeast Alaska. Though the languages are threatened with extinction, some arts are being revived through studying artifacts and songs are sometimes kept by whoever can remember; the culture is hanging on and, with effort, coming back strong.

• Contact Neighbors Editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at


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