One thousand years ago Natives from the Copper River migrated to the Yakutat area, bringing their dances to the people living on the coast, says Yakutat elder George Ramos.
This week, Ramos and the Mount St. Elias Dancers from Yakutat will bring their songs and dances to Juneau for Celebration 2002, continuing an ancient tradition of sharing culture.
"A lot of the history of the Tlingit people is in the songs and dances," Ramos said. "And that's the main thing about Celebration - we try to teach the young people about the songs and dances."
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Celebration, a biennial gathering of Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida people. Close to 2,000 visitors are expected to pour into Juneau to dance and participate in the festivities Thursday through Saturday at Centennial Hall and ANB Hall.
Between the welcome ceremony at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at Centennial Hall and the closing ceremony at 8:30 Saturday night, dance groups from throughout Southeast Alaska will perform, as well as guests from Hawaii, Canada, Anchorage, Kodiak and Washington state.
The big Celebration parade, a highlight of the event, will begin about 8:30 Saturday morning on South Franklin Street near the Mount Roberts Tramway and move to Centennial Hall. A Native arts and crafts market will be set up at the National Guard Armory for the three days of Celebration.
Additional performances will be held today in Juneau schools and Friday at noon in the State Office Building. Groups will dance in Marine Park on Thursday afternoon, Friday at noon and again Friday evening to kick off the weekly summer Concerts in the Park series.
Ramos said about 50 people, ages 4 to 80, are coming from Yakutat for Celebration. The Mount St. Elias Dancers have senior and junior groups that work closely together.
"Some of the older juniors, they're now 16 and 17, have been dancing since they were 2," Ramos said.
That wasn't the case when Ramos was a boy growing up in Yakutat in the 1930s and '40s. He said his uncle taught him Tlingit stories and history but he didn't begin learning the songs until he got out of the service in 1954 and returned home.
"We organized in 1955," he said. "The elders got together and thought, 'We'd been restricted by missionaries and the Bureau of Indian Affairs,' and these five men said, 'Enough.' They'd been dancing from time immemorial, but it was almost lost.
"They reorganized. There were five original men, but they had a lot of other elders with them. Three song leaders and two dancers, and they got the young people and taught them. That's how they started."
Some of the Tsimshian and Haida dancers from southern Southeast may recognize something of their traditional dances when they see the Mount St. Elias Dancers perform.
Ramos said there was trade between Native groups, and two tribes migrated to Yakutat 1,000 years ago, one from south of Ketchikan, another from Chitina, up the Copper River.
The Mount St. Elias Dancers perform at 2 p.m. Thursday, 9 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. Friday, and 3 p.m. Saturday. Most dance groups will perform several times throughout the weekend.
Dancing wraps up Saturday night, but festivities will continue Sunday with a picnic and canoe races at Sandy Beach. Other related events include an exhibit of contemporary and traditional Native art at the Alaska State Museum, opening with a reception with some of the artists today from 4 to 6 p.m.
From 7:30 to 9 p.m. today at the downtown library photographer Samuella Samaniego will show slides and talk about her new book, "Celebration," a collection of black and white images documenting the event since it began in 1982. These events are free.
Admission to Celebration 2002 is $10 for a day pass, $5 for students and seniors and free for kids 8 and younger. A three-day pass is available for $25.
Riley Woodford can be reached at email@example.com.