A day at the races

Tlingit canoe races help bridge the past with the future, and they're fun, too

Posted: Monday, June 10, 2002

The Tribal Renegades huddled together for a quick prayer before they climbed into their Tlingit war canoe for the Gathering of the Canoes races Sunday afternoon at Sandy Beach in Douglas.

"This means a lot to us," Tribal Renegades women's team captain Victoria Johnson said after the Renegades won the women's race. "We wanted to be spiritual. We wanted to be an example to our youth and to make our ancestors proud."

"First, we prayed to our ancestors," teammate Leilani Knight-McQueen said when Johnson mentioned the team's strategy. "We're paddling for our ancestors, and for our kids who come behind us."

The Renegades did well Sunday, winning the women's and coed races while taking second place in the men's race. The Tlingit Warriors, who swept all three titles in the last major canoe races in Juneau during the 2000 Celebration, won the men's crown. The Sitka canoe team Kadulshakxi Yis Sheet'kaa Dax took second place in the women's and coed races.

Other groups sponsoring canoes in this year's races included Sealaska Corp., Goldbelt Corp. and SEARHC (Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium). The six canoes in each race started at Sandy Beach, paddled out to a buoy halfway across the Gastineau Channel toward Thane, then finished at Sandy Beach. Each canoe had 10 paddlers and a rudderman.

The Tribal Renegades are a new team since the 2000 Celebration races, when former Tlingit Warriors captain William Brown decided it was time to even out the competition. The Warriors had dominated most of the recent Tlingit canoe races, so Brown started the Renegades and became their captain.

"It was kind of a split," said Brown, who served as the rudderman for the Rengades' men's and coed teams. "I thought there might be better competition, since we (the Tlingit Warriors) had won so many years. I wanted to generate more interest and, with better competition, I wanted to make it so people couldn't just show up and jump in a boat without training."

As the winners received their T-shirts after Sunday's races, the Tribal Renegades and Tlingit Warriors posed for team photos, then had a couple of friendly exchanges. Brown said the teams "are still brothers," but the Warriors said they were happy to retain the men's championship.

"As you see, they came in second place," Warriors co-captain Jerome Dennis Sr. said. "It was competitive, but we had to give them a little bit of a head start. Our (men's) team has 20 people and whoever makes the most practices gets to compete."

"We're all related," Warriors paddler Jim Zeller added, referring to both teams. "We're all brothers and cousins."

Dennis said his team gained an edge because of its preparation.

"While they practiced in the lake (Twin Lakes, where the 2000 races were held), we were out here in the ocean," Dennis said. "We'd paddle four or five miles because it's an endurance race. And there's no current in the lake."

The Sitka team was the only group to use a traditional Tlingit canoe, while the others used fiberglass replicas. The Sitka canoe was heavier, since it was carved from wood, and also featured a higher bow and a deeper keel. Nels Lawson, who is co-chairman and coach with Paul Jackson of the Sitka team, said the club had the canoe, called Kaasda Heeni Yaakw, built three years ago.

The canoe was commissioned on May 7, 1999, but the club wasn't able to bring it to Juneau for the 2000 races because of insurance reasons so a fiberglass replica was used. The Sitka canoe club brought along its ceremonial paddles (each has a piece of artwork on it to represent the various community groups, including several non-Native groups, that helped with the building of the canoe), but team members used plain paddles in the races.

"This is the first time the canoe's been in Juneau," said Lawson, who added that he and Jackson also serve as the canoe's caretakers. "Our mission for the canoe club is to be an educational tool. We're teaching anyone who's interested about our culture. The canoe was built to bring the community together. We feel good. This is supposed to be fun, and we had fun."

Charles Bingham can be reached at cbingham@juneauempire.com.

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