Youth light up cultural festival

Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2008

The hundreds of proud, young faces at Celebration 2008 became the highlight of the Native Alaska festival for many elders, who said the event is doing its job of passing the culture on to the next generation.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"The younger generation is getting into it and they're enjoying it," said Frank Jim from Angoon.

"You can see it in their faces," said Lavina Hamilton, who was born in Craig but now lives in Anchorage, where she is involved with the dance group Naa Luu Diskygwaii Yatxi, which loosely translated means, Islands of Children Who Learn. "They're so proud of what they're doing."

Celebration is a biennial festival sponsored in Juneau by the Sealaska Heritage Institute to recognize Southeast Alaska Native cultures. The event wrapped up Saturday, after three days of dance performances, an art show and artists' market, a parade, and language and other workshops at various locations downtown.

More than 50 dance groups and about 2,300 dancers came from around the region, Canada and the Lower 48 to participate.

Jim said children had not been overly involved in the festival, which was seen as an event for adults until the older generation realized a few years ago what was happening and pushed for change. He said he thought this year's event showed the new perspective is working.

"The kids are taking the time from running around outside and playing video games to putting their hearts into dance groups," he said. In Angoon, many of the grade-school children are now involved in preparing the songs and dances to be performed during Celebration.

"The kids are all tired," Jim said Saturday. "They can hardly get up in the morning. But they're doing what they can to please their grandmas and grandpas."

Carolyn Noe watched her 8-year-old grandson, Kaden, perform for the first time this week. He was originally shy to sing Native songs but now that the culture is being taught in Juneau schools, she said he and other children are more enthused about Celebration.

"It's come a long way since 2000," Noe said. "The parents danced with the children on their hips before, but now you can hear the kids singing loud and clear."

The addition of junior dance groups in communities throughout Southeast is allowing children to learn from experienced dancers and drummers, said SHI President Rosita Worl. The total number this year - 52 groups - was the highest the event has ever seen, she said.

The festival started Thursday morning with the Grand Entrance at ANB Hall. Thousands of dancers dressed in regalia banged on drums, shook rattles and sang songs as they moved through the city's downtown streets. The procession took nearly three hours. It ended inside Centennial Hall, where the thousands crossed the main stage before joining everyone on the floor.

"Two thousand-some dancers marching across that stage, almost in a trance," Worl said. "... It was like when you see the salmon swim together in the rivers when they come back home. To see people dance together with that singular purpose, that was the most exciting to me."

Another highlight came Friday night with a packed room at the ANB Hall. Security had to hold people outside to prevent the room from overflowing its capacity as the Woosh.ji.een Dancers rallied the crowd with upbeat songs and the audience demanded more. Doors were opened to allow cool air inside as people stood in the aisles and shouted encouragement or clapped along with the drummers. The Mt. St. Elias Dancers took the stage next and dancing continued until nearly midnight.

The dancing began again early Saturday morning as the sun peeked out for a parade. Saturday afternoon, as Danelle Whitmore, 13, waited for her group, "Future Leaders" to go on the main stage, she said she was nervous but excited. The group has 25 kids.

"You get a rush," she said. "People are watching you."

Celebration is set to take place again in Juneau in 2010.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or

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