The last century was filled with rough water for Alaska's first people. But in a sea of regalia and tradition, the culture and language of Alaska Natives lives on at Celebration 2000.
``When I was growing up, we weren't allowed to talk our language or do anything like this,'' said Ray Wilson, leader of the Kiksadaa clan of Sitka. ``Since they started Celebration, we've begun to take pride in our Native culture. It's brought back our culture.''
Celebration 2000, a gathering of more than 4,000 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribal members, began Thursday in Juneau with a grand procession, speeches and dances.
For the opening ceremonies, Centennial Hall was filled to capacity, with people in the aisles of the large ballroom. Some of the crowd milled through the corridors, or socialized in the parking lot and on the lawn.
``It's definitely bigger than two years ago,'' said Elliott Nathan Jr., who traveled from Seattle with the Tsimshian Haayuuk dance group. ``Last time there was plenty of room for everybody, but this year it's a little tight.''
``There's a lot more enthusiasm too. More energy and spirit,'' said Nathan, dressed in full regalia including a wolf clan headdress carved out of wood by his cousin. ``It (the headdress) lets people know who I am -- what clan and house I represent.''
The Tsmishian Haayuuk dance group consists of 52 members, 12 of whom are related to Nathan.
``Celebration is important. It's a gathering of our people to celebrate our culture with song, dance and spirit. And to pass on the traditions to the younger folks,'' he said.
The younger set, from babies to teen-agers, was well represented in the large crowd of smiling faces. Dressed in blue, black and red button blankets, children comprised a large portion of Celebration's participants.
`There are two things that are important to me,'' said Gloria Anderstrom, a 15-year-old from Yakutat. ``Basketball and dancing.''
A member of the Junior Mount St. Elias Dancers, Anderstrom and her teen-age friends looked like young royalty as they soaked up the sun in full Tlingit regalia.
``I've been coming to Celebration since I've been his age,'' she said, pointing to a toddler playing at her feet who wore a similar robe to Anderstrom's, minus the beaded headdress. ``This is a huge part of my life.''
For Wilson of Sitka, the abundance of children participating in the event is a celebration in itself.
``Our pride is back and we're proud of who we are -- you can tell by how many children's groups are involved,'' said Wilson, as he settled into a chair in the Elder's Hospitality Room at Centennial Hall.
``When our culture was taken away from us, we were lost. People wanted us to join the white race but we're not white. Not better or worse -- just different,'' Wilson said.
``Celebration has started a big wave that is now cresting. It's not going to stop, our culture will keep on going,'' he said. ``Now, when we're gone the children can take over and show the way for their children and grandchildren.''
Celebration 2000 continues through Saturday night with dance performances and cultural events. It also includes a canoe race at 2 p.m. Sunday at Twin Lakes, sponsored by Goldbelt Inc. For a detailed schedule, go to Hot Links at juneauempire.com. Celebration events are also being aired in Juneau on cable TV Channel 4.
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