Dangeli steers through tribal politics and life

Juneau color

Posted: Friday, April 21, 2000

When Jayne Dangeli could barely look over the wheel of a boat, her father taught her how to navigate through the choppy waters of Southeast Alaska.

``He would stand behind me and tell me to look toward the light and head toward it until I saw another light. Then head toward the next light,'' said Dangeli from her office at the Sealaska Heritage Foundation.

``In terms a child could understand, he taught me that as long as I look for the light I would never be lost and would eventually find my way home.''

Dangeli must have been a good student because she's been successfully navigating her way through life as a single parent -- and the labyrinth of tribal politics -- for almost two decades.

``We're lucky to have her in our Native community. Jayne is committed to making things better and sees the interconnected nature of things that allows her to contribute in many ways. She's really close to her culture,'' said Cheryl Eldemar of Tlingit-Haida Central Council.

Born in British Columbia to the Nisga'a/Tsimpshian people, Dangeli spent her childhood in Ketchikan and is a descendant of the Eagle House, Beaver Clan.

Since her arrival in Juneau in 1982, Dangeli has worked for the council as an Indian land specialist, chaired the committee that started Healthy Nations, and organized several Tlingit and Haida conventions. She has also worked with Huna Totem Corp. on its museum research and development efforts.

``She's one of those individuals in the community who's right there for you. She's out there willing to extend a helping hand or offer advice,'' said assembly member Dwight Perkins. ``She's down-home people.''

Currently, Dangeli is coordinating Celebration 2000, an event that will take place June 1-3 in Juneau. It's the largest Native cultural event in Southeast, bringing together tribal members and hosting more than 50 dance groups, an Alaska Native arts and crafts fair, cultural workshops, canoe races and a parade.

``Celebration brings attention to the fact that our tradition and cultures are not being lost. There are so many problems that we all experience. Domestic violence, alcohol, substance abuse and (being) directionless. All of us can set our own directions ourselves. With Celebration, Native people get a chance to set an example of how this is done,'' Dangeli said.

By including children in all the activities, organizers hope to teach young people the traditional ways.

``The increase of youth groups (performing during Celebration), that in itself is evidence of growth. When I wear my regalia and pick up my drum, I become part of my ancestors. It's not just me, but all tribal people and the ancient tradition and language that has lived throughout the ages,'' added Dangeli, one of the lead drummers of the Juneau Nisga'a Dancers.

Looking to the past to help navigate the future has helped Dangeli through the rough waters she's encountered in her life.

``An elder taught me years ago that anything is possible. We are only as much as we think we are,'' said Dangeli. ``Negative experiences make us stronger human beings.''

Besides her work, pursuing a college education and raising three children on her own, Dangeli has been a mentor for many women in the community.

``I've learned from Jayne to never lose sight of where you're going,'' said Lonna Stevens, a single mother who works at the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

``She taught me that it's OK. We have things to overcome but we can do it,'' Stevens said.

Dangeli credits her tenacity to her mother, who taught her eldest daughter the traditional teachings of the Nisga'a hierarchical system, including the songs, dances, drumming, singing, writing and art.

``Jayne's personal and spiritual outlook is very healthy and I think that adds to her success,'' said Eldemar of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council.

Despite her accomplishments, Dangeli's true love remains the waters of Southeast, where she spends as much time as she can kayaking.

``Sometimes I still feel him,'' said Dangeli, referring to her father, who passed away three years ago. ``He's still helping me find directions.''

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