Sitka Kaagwaantaan to lead this morning's grand parade

Grand Entrance begins today at 8 a.m.

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

Ed Mercer and the Sitka Kaagwaantaan are honored to be the lead dance group for today's 8 a.m. Grand Entrance and Saturday's 8 a.m. parade in Celebration 2004.

The group, formed by Mercer and Naomi Kanosh 10 years ago, is expecting 90 to 95 members to show up this year. The Kaagwaantaan is one of a record 47 dance groups performing at Celebration.

"We're not there to show off our dances," Mercer said. "We're there, very simply, to represent those in our clan that have left us. And so we don't really dance for ourselves. We dance for those that have left us. I represent my mother and my grandmother, and a lot of my uncles that have left in the last 15 to 30 years."

"I'm dancing on behalf of them, and I'm the one that is going to be charged to uphold these people. We dance because we are very proud of our Kaagwaantaan. We don't want to compete against anybody, because we know they're also dancing for their grandparents and their loved ones as well."

Participants in this morning's Grand Entrance will gather at 7:30 a.m. in front of the ANB Hall on Willoughby Avenue. The march begins at 8 a.m. at Fireweed Place and stretches a short distance down the street to Centennial Hall. The 2002 Grand Entrance was on Whittier Street.

Traffic will be affected on Willoughby Avenue, Village Street and West Third Street. Several parking lots - the State Office Building, Department of Environmental Conservation, state offices at 400 Willoughby Avenue and Fireweed Place - will be closed from 7:45 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Dance groups will march in both parades in the order in which they perform in the dance group schedule.

The Kaagwaantaan is a clan dance group that sings its own songs and performs its own dances. The group includes two major clans: the Kook Hit, or Box House, and the Gooch Hit, or Wolf House. Clan regalia includes designs of the brown bear, the killer whale, the eagle's nest, the eagle and the wolf.

This morning, the Kaagwaantaan will be performing what it calls happy songs.

"We have two different stages of a potlatch party," Mercer said. "Right at the beginning we have sorrow songs that we sing for the deceased and the family that are on the opposite side. Once that's complete we have officially released the spirit. The only place we can use those songs are in a potlatch. The rest of the songs are happy songs. We have a lot of Box House, Kook Hit songs that we're going to be singing."

The Kaagwaantaan will march in front of Rangimarie, a Maori group from New Zealand and this year's special guest.

"It's going to be very interesting to see other dance groups that are not Tlingit or Haida or Tsimshian," Mercer said. "It's always very interesting to see how they perform. We look for similarities in how they apply themselves, how respectful are they, how respectful are our people. It's very interesting to see how their dances are performed and what they have to say about any particular dance or moves. When the Polynesians came from Hawaii, we had a lot of togetherness. It was very easy to identify everybody."

Besides Celebration, the Sitka Kaagwaantaan is preparing for the Koo.eex Potlatch, Oct. 1 to 3 in Sitka. The event will commemorate the last Kaagwaantaan potlatch, in 1904. More than 3,000 tribal entities are expected to attend from Yakutat, Haines, Klukwan, Juneau, Joonag, Sitka, Angoon, Kake and Ketchikan.

The group will not be bringing to Celebration the staff used by tribal leader Kusataan at the 1904 potlatch. But it hopes to have the item for this October's potlatch.

"One of the big reasons that we were selected as the lead group for Sealaska Celebration is how we carry out our songs," Mercer said. "We try to keep them as closely as we can to the traditional ways of administering our songs. We're pretty close."

In the old days, Mercer said, a Naakanii, or head of the group, would announce what songs the group was going to be using and would explain any reasons behind a particular song.

"The reason why we can't get it down to near-perfect is because of our ability to speak the Tlingit language. For sometime we have begun to lose the end of speaking our language. Now it's being brought back here in Sitka. Groups like the Sitka Native education program, they provided young children the opportunity to learn the Tlingit language, and that's what we mean when we say we can get it near perfect."

Some of the other tribes within the Kaagwaantaan are the Kiks.adi, T'uknax.adi, T'akdeintaan, Yanyeidi, Dak'l'aweidi and L'eeneidi."

"We'd like to take this opportunity to honor our father's people," Mercer said. "Some of us are the children of T'akdeintaan. Some of us are the children of L'uknax.adi. We also have children of the Deisheetaan, the G'aanax'teidi, and we have children of the Kiks.adi."

The Kaagwaantaan will be honoring tribal leader Herman Kitka, or Tlingit Tlein. His Tlingit name is He will turn 90 in July and will walk with the group in this year's parade. Kitka is from the Box House. The group will also honor Daisy Jones, of the Wolf House. Many of her family members, the "Jones' girls," will be dancing this year.

This year's drummers are Elmanda Miller, Sharon Sam and Teresa Moses. The song callers are Chuck Miller of the L'uknax.adi, or coho tribe, and his son, Jay Miller of the Kaagwaantaan Box House.

The Kaagwaantaan are dedicating their performance to Charlie Joseph, or Kaal'atk. Many of his family members, including his daughters, will be dancing.

"Charlie put a lot of songs together and recorded them with his daughter while he was working with the Native Education program," Mercer said. "As a consequence of his taping all the songs, we didn't have to far to find our songs. They had them printed out and translated. It made it a lot easier."

Ethel Mackenin, one of the founders of the Noow Tlein dancers, also helped the group retain its Kaagwaantaan songs, Mercer said. Mackenin will present a new dance staff to Tommy Joseph on Saturday night.

Dan Moreno, as well as Elmanda Miller, Roby Littlefield, Maria Guthrie, Agnes Johnson and her late husband, Joseph Johnson, helped the Kaagwaantaan become the lead group this year, Mercer said.

"We want to thank the people from Juneau," he said. "We have Kaagwaantaan there that are getting ready now and also people from Hoonah and some people coming down from Anchorage."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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