Drums and traditional songs filled the air at Douglas Harbor on Tuesday afternoon as Alaska Natives from all over Southeast Alaska made their way into the boating dock.
One People Canoe Society gathered together nine canoes filled with anywhere between 13-17 paddlers from Ketchikan, Sitka, Kake, Angoon, Hoonah, Yakutat and the Taku River in Canada, who each paddled their way into the harbor from their hometowns. It was the unofficial start to this year’s Celebration, the four-day biennial festival celebrating Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.
Clan leaders welcomed the canoes as they arrived from their several day journey. As the boats came to the dock, paddlers in the canoes would then asked if they had permission to come on land in front of a crowd of hundreds of people.
Once on land, the paddlers and those greeting them shared nothing but smiles, hugs and kisses.
Miguel Contreras, of Hoonah, said the journey is a cultural celebration of physical and mental strength.
“For the culture, it is a great thing because it brings everyone together,” Contreras, who paddled on the Yakutat canoe, said. “When you are on the canoe, you work together as a team. You push through bad weather and everything else you have to make it through the end. It is very spiritual and very powerful. Everybody enjoys every second of it.”
One of the younger paddlers, Sidney Austin, 12, of Kake, was proud of his achievement.
“It means a lot to me that I got to go on that journey at my age and that I made it through,” Austin said.
Mark Sixbey, who is an education specialist from Sitka, did more than paddle for the journey — he also helped make the paddles. Sixbey said he was approached by Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium which asked if he would help make paddles for the journey. After several Saturday workshops, Sixbey and others crafted the paddles for the journey. While the weather conditions went from one extreme to the next, Sixbey said it was worth all the effort.
“It has been amazing,” Sixbey said. “We set off six days ago when we paddled, ate breakfast, paddled, ate lunch, paddled some more until we would set up camp. It has been that routine. We would wake up, break down camp and do it all again. It was hot the first couple of days and yesterday everybody got rained on. Spirits were high for a while before the cold set in. But, being here is awesome.”
The paddlers from all over Southeast Alaska and Canada have been making this journey every two years in correlation with Celebration since 2002.
One of the Taku River canoe greeters, Caitlin O’Shea of Atlin, British Columbia, Canada, said being a part of this tradition is special.
“For me, bringing everybody together for Celebration is coming together to celebrate our culture and reviving it,” O’Shea said. “It’s about celebrating being with each other and celebrating life.”
Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott also joined in on the last leg of the journey. Mallott said the event is more than bringing Alaska Native cultures together, but about bringing Alaskans together in general.
“It is a continuation of the development and the strengthening of cultures throughout all of Southeast Alaska,” Mallott said. “It is a celebration, it is a reaffirmation of who we are. Hopefully, it is bringing Alaskans, whoever they are, together.”
Taku River Wolf Clan leader James Williams said the event is a reminder of the importance of time. Williams said his mother used to remind him that they would travel days in canoes to celebrate a family member’s first moose kill.
“It is a great gathering of our people coming from all over like they used to travel in the old days in a canoe,” Williams said. “For me, it means a lot. It is not often that we do this. ‘We have got no time,’ we always say. We have got to learn how to manage time. Gatherings like this will do that.”
• Contact reporter Gregory Philson at email@example.com or call at 523-2265. Follow him on Twitter at @GTPhilson.