METLAKATLA— Residents celebrated the 126th anniversary of the founding of “new” Metlakatla with food, games and the arrival of canoes from British Columbia, in the annual Founders’ Day celebration.
“It’s a big birthday party for the town,” said Maria Hayward. “We all get together and have a good time.”
The celebration began Aug. 7 covered in fog, but that didn’t stop the celebration as the canoes rolled ashore, reliving the event in 1887 when the original Tsimshian pioneers arrived from “old” Metlakatla, British Columbia, led by Bishop William Duncan.
“Being Native people, even though we were brought here by a missionary, we’re all very connected to our ancestors, to our great-grandparents,” said Dan Boxley, part-time resident of Metlakatla. “Even though most of the children of the pioneers are nearly all gone now, honoring that memory and that struggle of having to leave their homeland is important.”
Boxley, a Tsimshian carver, splits his time between Metlakatla and Seattle. He was born on Annette Island, but his father took the family to Seattle to pursue a career as an artist and woodcarver.
“I come back every summer,” he said. “I’m a wood carver and it’s easier to make a living in Seattle, but I come home as often as I can.”
Nearly 100 paddlers moved six canoes 56 nautical miles over six days, traveling from Metlakatla, British Columbia, to Metlakatla, Alaska. The trip was called Gathering Strength Canoe Journey. The boats arrive at Annette Island Tuesday, but waited until Wednesday to make their grand entrance.
“It’s special because they are our people,” Boxley said. “So it’s a little bit of a reunion.”
“It was the way they came here, in remembrance of how we got here and everything they did to make the community,” Wayward said, showing emotion because of the significance of the event. “Everything they did — it’s remarkable.”
The town gathered at the Russell Hayward Memorial Park near the waterfront to take part in friendly competition and partake of homemade food. Booths lined up on one side of the park, offering Native and Filipino food and handcrafted wares.
By mid-morning, the fog had disappeared and kids chased each other with water guns and jumped off the pier to swim in the water. Groups lit fireworks from the beach while others gathered in the bleachers lining the park to watch community members of every age participate in foot races and a watermelon-eating contest. A breeze off the water kept the crowds cool and outside to enjoy each other’s company.
“(The celebration is) that chance for us to remember, and to come together as a community,” Boxley said. “As much as we see each other every day, sometimes we need little reminders to show how connected we are and remember how we got here.”
Members of the neighboring Ketchikan community traveled to Metlakatla to take part in the festivities as well.
“My husband has a dental practice on the island, and he brought us all to support the community,” said Vicki Taylor. She and her husband, Ron, participated in the three-legged race while their kids did the foot races and watermelon-eating contest. The family, complete with cheerful faces, headed back to Ketchikan in the afternoon.
“The weather is great and we’ve had a great time,” she said.
The day finished with a formal community-wide feast and celebration in the town hall with traditional dancing performed by the Fourth Generation Dancers.
Fireworks punctuated the end of the celebration and signaled the close of the town’s 126th birthday party.