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In the 20th century, the first people of Alaska were taught to be ashamed of their culture, heritage and language. As Alaska Natives enter the new millennium, they have not only revived their culture and language - they're celebrating it.
With more than 46 dance troups, organizers expect Celebration 2000 to be one of the largest Alaska Native cultural events in the state.
The event, from June 1 to 3 in Juneau, will feature dance performances, cultural workshops, a Native arts and crafts fair, canoe races and a parade.
``Celebration isn't about performances or competitions. The event is about sharing our history and stories. Historically, our culture was passed on through the dances and songs,'' said Jayne Dangeli, the coordinator of Celebration 2000.
The biannual event, started in 1982, was born out of the concern that ancient traditions were endangered and no longer being passed on to the next generation. The Sealaska Heritage Foundation, which sponsors the event, created Celebration as a way to transmit customs of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people to future generations.
``Celebration is not a traditional gathering. It provides a place for the tribal people to assemble and share our traditions and culture,'' Dangeli said.
The first Celebration attracted 150 participants. By 1990, the event had tripled in size to 500 participants. This year the cultural event is expected to draw 2,000 performers and more than 200 volunteers from the United States and Canada.
``We've had inquiries from dance groups based in Hawaii, New York and Arizona. Unfortunately, they couldn't afford to get up here this year, but they are hoping to attend 2002,'' Dangeli said.
Since each dance group is responsible for its own expenses, the cost to participate in Celebration can be formidable.
``These dance groups, that range from eight people to 250, are self-sustaining. Dance groups and tribal members are having bake sales and fund raisers all year round to be a part of this event,'' Dangeli said.
This year, the most significant addition to the program is a memorial ceremony that will honor the ancestors of various Pacific Northwest tribes and clans.
Another development is that the elders hospitality room has evolved into a meeting place for revered members of the community, Dangeli said.
``Originally it was a place for elders to rest and have something to drink. But now we have groups coming here specifically to meet with other language speakers and elders,'' said the event's coordinator.
Celebration, which also embraces young tribal members, has seen a sharp increase in its younger participants over the years, said Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation.
``At first most dancers were adults, and now you see children dancing and leading,'' Worl said.
``Anthropologists are utterly amazed at what they call a revitalization of our culture,'' she said. ``We like to look at it as the vitality of the culture.''
This year's theme reflects that sentiment. ``Restoring Balance Through Culture'' represents the circular concept of past, present and future generations, as well as drawing attention to the disruption experienced by Native people during the last millennium, Worl said.
``We're looking at the culture for the next millennium while keeping with our concept of the past. The necessity of balance is really important in our culture - both spiritual and social balance,'' Worl said. ``Celebration has contributed to the survival of our people, not physically, but spiritually and socially.''
For coordinator Dangeli, a member of the Juneau Nisga, a dance group, Celebration's success is evident in the number of people, young and old, who now embrace and honor their culture and heritage.
``This is the result of all the work that we have done as individuals and as members of the Native community. When we put on our regalia and pick up our drum, we become one with our ancestors, our children and our future,'' she said.
Tickets for Celebration 2000 are available via e-mail at email@example.com, fax at 586-9293 or phone at 463-4844. Ticket prices are $25 for three days per adult or $10 a day, and $12 for seniors and students or $5 per day. Children under 2 are free.
Because this event is very popular, organizers suggest people buy their tickets in advance or plan to arrive early to ensure access to Celebration 2000.