There was a time, early in the 20th century, when Natives in Southeast were told by the government and missionaries to give up their old ways, said Charlie Daniels of Sitka, who walked Saturday morning in his first Celebration parade.
Daniels, who walked the route from the Mount Roberts Tramway to Centennial Hall with the flag-bearing Native veterans who led the parade, said this is a happy year. Sitka will celebrate in October the 100th anniversary of what was supposed to be the last Kaagwaantann potlatch the government would allow.
"At the time we were going to school we weren't allowed to speak our language or have anything to do with the old ways. Almost lost all our heritage then. Coming back now," he said at the tramway parking lot before the parade, standing amid hundreds of Natives wearing regalia.
Forty-nine Native groups walked, drummed, sang or danced in Saturday's parade. As the groups lined up before the parade, drums began to beat, songs broke out and some people swayed in place. Soon South Franklin and Front streets were canyons filled with the staccato of drum beats.
Duane Bosch of Hoonah, a member of the Gaaxw-Yaayi dance group, is attending his second Celebration.
"Celebration is a chance to be part of something beautiful," he said, "to promote Native culture and to strengthen the ties between all people."
For David Lapchynski, 16, a member of the youthful Gjaahéen dance group of Sitka, Celebration is fun.
"It's exciting. It's new people to meet," he said.
"Showing off," dancer Leonty Williams, 12, added.
"We get to learn new dances," Teresa Torres, 12, said.
The Sitka dancers travel throughout Southeast to perform. They raise their own funds and make their own regalia.
"They know their clan, who their family is, their mother, their father, their grandparents. They can read and write the (Tlingit) language," chaperone Jacob Sam Payenna said.
Dancing keeps the culture alive, Leonty said.
"We're supporting our ancestors," David said.
Leilani Knight-McQueen of Juneau, a leadership specialist with the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, participated in the parade with her daughter's Chihuahua, which was dressed in a button blanket, and teens who are paddling a canoe in the races during Celebration. In order to race, the youths had to make their own paddles for the 30-foot, Tlingit-style canoes.
"One of the things that comes to me is the lessons we learn as we prepare (to race) are lessons in life," Knight-McQueen said. "It helps the kids walk in both worlds and feel good about themselves."
When a girl paddler became discouraged, Knight-McQueen told her to go forward with strength and courage, she said.
"They learned in this whole process there isn't anything their ancestors haven't been through or haven't visioned or there isn't a story for," she said. "And so finding those stories and songs that carry us through this world is where they're going to find answers."
Brian Cox of Juneau, who married into a Native family, works with the teenage canoeists. The youths learn teamwork, self-discipline and who they are, he said.
"Celebration, to me, is when all of the communities unite as one and celebrate one nation," he said.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.