Melina Meyer and Laine Rinehart laugh while weaving the bottom fringe of the Chilkat Pride robe on Saturday. The robe will be exhibited and danced in for the first time during this year’s Celebration. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Melina Meyer and Laine Rinehart laugh while weaving the bottom fringe of the Chilkat Pride robe on Saturday. The robe will be exhibited and danced in for the first time during this year’s Celebration. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Celebration 2024 mixes decades of tradition with new events

Thousands gather in Juneau for four-day Indigenous dance-and-culture festival starting Wednesday.

Nearly 1,600 dancers in 36 Indigenous groups will celebrate the theme “Together We Live in Balance” at Sealaska Heritage Institute’s biennial Celebration June 5-8 in Juneau.

First held in 1982, the dance-and-culture festival has become one of the largest events in the state.

The SHI Board of Trustees named Dakhká Khwáan Dancers (People of the Inland), a Tlingit group based in Whitehorse, Canada, as the lead dance group for the Grand Entrance and Grand Exit songs. In that role for the first time since the group initially performed at Celebration in 2008, members will lead the other dance groups across the stage to mark the beginning and end of Celebration.

The Grand Entrance Parade is scheduled at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Centennial Hall.

Alaska Native dancers gather for a final time on the stage at Centennial Hall for the Grand Exit of Celebration on June 11, 2022. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Alaska Native dancers gather for a final time on the stage at Centennial Hall for the Grand Exit of Celebration on June 11, 2022. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Among the other traditional events during the four-day Celebration are a Juried Art Show and Competition, a Juried Youth Art Exhibit, a Native Art Market, Native food contests, a Toddler Regalia Review, and the Everyday Indigenous Fashion Show sponsored by Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, Goldbelt Inc. and SHI.

This year’s Celebration also features a variety of new events including a juried film festival, the premier showing of a Tlingit “MacBeth,” and presentations featuring historic and newly woven robes.

Weaving Our Pride

A one-of-a-kind Chilkat LGBTQ+ Youth Pride robe will be revealed during the Grand Entrance. A total of six mentor weavers have been working on the “Weaving Our Pride” project since July 2023.

An official description of the project states two robes, one Chilkat and one Ravenstail, were created together by Native, non-Native, queer, straight, cis-gender, transgender, allies, and all-identities youths.

The Ravenstail robe will be finished by or before Celebration 2026, according to project leaders. After completion, both robes will be kept at Zach Gordon Youth Center as a permanent wearable art piece, to be worn only by youth during the biennial Celebration, graduations, new-names parties, coming-out parties, and significant Native and non-Native Pride events.

The Chilkat Pride robe’s progress as of Saturday. By the first day of Celebration on Wednesday it will be ready to be worn. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

The Chilkat Pride robe’s progress as of Saturday. By the first day of Celebration on Wednesday it will be ready to be worn. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Lily Wooshkindein Da.áat Hope, a Tlingit weaver and fiber artist, began “Weaving our Pride” to teach youth the traditional practices of weaving Chilkat and Ravenstail robes.

Wooshkindein Da.áat: Lily Hope Weaver Studio, partnered with ZGYC to provide what the weavers describe as a “safe space.”

Melina Meyer, a Tlingit and Unangan weaver, said the best part of the project was connecting with the youth.

“This robe, we’re doing it for community and for the youth community,” Meyer said. “Being able to do it in their space with them, combining all different ages, is beneficial for us and them. I think that really just being around it and seeing it is beneficial. The fact that even if your hands aren’t in there doing it you still remember it and have fond memories of handcrafts. That can be influential in one’s upbringing. You might not realize until you’re older and looking back, but it’s important to have those kind of core memories.”

Youth from ages 8 years old to 18 dropped in over the past year to lend a helping hand to the project, Meyer said. She said it’s noticeable in the warp of the Ravenstail robe where youth were learning.

Melina Meyer shows the difference in the Ravenstail warp. Where youth began to learn to weave the warp is loosely braided; where a mentor wove it’s tight. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Melina Meyer shows the difference in the Ravenstail warp. Where youth began to learn to weave the warp is loosely braided; where a mentor wove it’s tight. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Meyer has been weaving for the past five years, beginning with Ravenstail and then learning Chilkat. She moved to Juneau two years ago from Cordova to weave with Hope.

“These robes that we create have a spirit behind them,” Meyer said. “We’re creating this spirit with really good, accepting energy for all.”

Donedin Jackson, a Tlingit weaver, has been an apprentice of Hope for the past four years. She’s visiting Juneau for Celebration from Alberta, Canada. She helped weave the Chilkat robe at the beginning of the project and returned just in time to add the finishing touches.

“I’m honored to have the opportunity to even lend a small hand to the construction and the creation of something that supports our LGBTQ+ youth and that allows them to feel at home in our community,” Jackson said. “It’s finally being recognized that we’ve had Two Spirits people of the Northwest Coast since time and memorial. Our robes are historical documents. This robe is to celebrate our people with respect and the way they deserve to be treated. If there’s any kid out there that it makes them feel accepted by their community, even just one, this work is worth it.”

Donedin Jackson and Melina Meyer work on the front and back of the Chilkat Pride robe on Saturday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Donedin Jackson and Melina Meyer work on the front and back of the Chilkat Pride robe on Saturday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Hanna Schempf began weaving consistently during the COVID-19 pandemic and has been helping with “Weaving Our Pride” since last year. She agreed with Jackson that it’s been an honor to be involved.

Laine Rinehart, who is Tlingit and Taos Pueblo, has been weaving for the past 18 years. Like Meyer and Schempf, Rinehart has been weaving the Chilkat Pride robe for the past year.

“The whole message behind this robe is creating sort of a safe environment for LGBTQ+ youth and specifically Indigenous youth,” Rinehart said. “So I think having that message within our community is really powerful to have that available. At least for myself growing up that wasn’t necessarily the case. So I think kind of going back now, and kind of creating that space is really beneficial for the youth. And then I think that the other side of that is for those of us that are from both communities, that’s also a healing opportunity for us as adults too. We can create that welcoming environment.”

The time to complete a Chilkat robe varies depending on the personal time each weaver has for it and its complexity. For the Chilkat Pride robe, the weavers said it was a more simplified design than a traditional Chilkat, so it took a shorter amount of time. They estimated having spent between 1,600 and 2,000 hours (about two and a half months) weaving over the past year.

As far as the impact the weavers hope the robe will have at Celebration, the weavers said they hope whoever dances in the robe “receives the comfort or recognition they need.”

“Weaving Our Pride” project manager Rachel Disney applied for grants and funding for the project. The goal for the soon-to-be-revealed Chilkat robe was met by September and Disney said donations are still needed for the Ravenstail robe through the Juneau Community Foundation website.

The Ravenstail Pride robe is still a work in progress. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

The Ravenstail Pride robe is still a work in progress. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Along with the reveal of the first “Weaving Our Pride” robe, SHI President Rosita Worl will give an orientation on Southeast Alaska Native cultures paired with a viewing of two old Chilkat robes recently acquired by SHI. The orientation will take place at noon Thursday at the Walter Soboleff Clan House.

One of the robes was purchased at auction by private donors who gave the piece to SHI in February. This robe is thought to be at least 150 years old. The other is on loan to SHI by the Rahr-West Art Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which sent the piece to Juneau in May.

Canoe Landings

For the first time ever, the One People Canoe Society is taking a different route to Celebration.

Doug Chilton is the president of the One People Canoe Society and has been paddling to Celebration since he began the journey’s tradition in 2008.

“This year we decided to work with one of the other communities, and help them get their group together and in the water,” Chilton said. “So we started with Wrangell and we kind of pulled Petersburg into it also. So we decided this year we would paddle up the mainland side instead of around Admiralty Island. We’re helping them get started and hopefully next Celebration they’ll be doing their leg on their own.”

The Cook Inlet Native Head Start program brought two canoes down. CINHS started in Wrangell and was scheduled to land in downtown Juneau on Tuesday, the day before Celebration. (Photo courtesy of Dixie Hutchinson)

The Cook Inlet Native Head Start program brought two canoes down. CINHS started in Wrangell and was scheduled to land in downtown Juneau on Tuesday, the day before Celebration. (Photo courtesy of Dixie Hutchinson)

He added the biggest difference for the new leg was the weather and feeling the cold wind off the glaciers. Chilton said preparation for the canoe journey begins months in advance and after doing it for years it becomes a routine. Wearing the right gear for cold weather and packing enough food are important preparation tasks.

“Directions change, wind changes, the weather changes on a dime,” Chilton said. “So you’ve got to kind of constantly be aware of what’s going on, what’s coming, and what’s coming up behind you. We’re constantly watching the weather, watching the canoes, making sure that we watch the crew and make sure that nobody’s looking like they’re too fatigued.”

Along with the Petersburg and Wrangell additions, Chilton said the One People Canoe Society also brought a veteran’s canoe group together that launched with them from Wrangell. By the time the One People Canoe Society reaches Juneau for their downtown landing Tuesday morning they will have 10 canoes with them in total. The canoes are scheduled to land Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. at the Huna Totem Corporation Áak’w landing across from Ramada Hotel.

He said the number of participants in the canoe journey to Celebration has grown every year.

“Reviving the canoe culture in Southeast Alaska has been our goal,” Chilton said regarding the One People Canoe Society’s mission. “There’s been numerous other entities that are working on reviving different parts of their culture throughout Southeast Alaska. But our focus is to revive canoeing. So for me to see the canoeing grow as fast as it has over the last few celebrations, it’s been very exciting for me personally, because it was my dream to revive the canoeing in Southeast.”

The Áak’w Kwáan canoe landing will take place simultaneously at 11:30 a.m. at the Auke Recreation Area’s Raven and Eagle shelters on Tuesday.

Premiere of “Tlingit Macbeth”

SHI will premiere the film “Tlingit Macbeth,” which was written by William Shakespeare and translated into Tlingit by Johnny Marks during his time at the institute.

Sealaska hired a film crew to document the performance and SHI recently acquired a grant to edit the final program, which was produced by Morgan Howard Productions and will debut during Celebration.

Still frame from a production of “Tlingit Macbeth” at the National Museum of the American Indian in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Still frame from a production of “Tlingit Macbeth” at the National Museum of the American Indian in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute)

The play was conceived of and directed by Anita Maynard-Losh of Perseverance Theatre, and performed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington D.C., in 2007.

The production was set in the context of the Tlingit culture, fusing Shakespeare’s words with the language, music, dancing and visual design of the region’s first peoples.

Maynard-Losh said the idea came to her while living in Hoonah.

“My background was in Shakespeare in theater,” she said. “When I moved to Hoonah, I was just struck by some of the similarities in the world of the play of ‘Macbeth’, and some of the things I was learning about the culture there. The Tlingit culture, like the Scottish culture is based on clan systems, both of those cultures were feared for their fierce warfare, they both had a potent connection with the supernatural, and they both had kind of a tribal value of putting the good of the group first, rather than the good of any one individual.”

She said Elders gave their blessings for creating this version of “Macbeth.” She said she owes the cast, crew and creative team for bringing her idea to life.

“Everyone really contributed from their own lives and their own histories to creating the world of the play,” Maynard-Losh said. “Robert Hoffman was the set designer and he was critical to the visual representation of the world because he designed the set, and we had masks, and puppets. We were able to use images from the culture, but not images that were owned by specific clans because of the clan ownership rules in the Tlingit culture. So he was able to use imagery that came from the Tlingit culture, but was not clan imagery.”

Sealaska hired a film crew to document the performance and SHI recently acquired a grant to edit the final program, which was produced by Morgan Howard Productions and will debut during Celebration.

“Going back to that kind of cultural imperative of putting the group first rather than the individual, we made the folks speak Tlingit when they were adhering to that, when they were adhering to the cultural values, they spoke their lines in Tlingit with subrtitles above the stage,” Maynard-Losh said. “And when they were going for their individual ambition, or their individual goals, they spoke in English. The English was used as a metaphor for not adhering to cultural values.”

She said by having the actors speak their lines in Tlingit, it pushed them to act using their whole bodies to convey a character’s message. Maynard-Losh encouraged Juneau to see the film which premiers for the first time at 5 p.m. Thursday at Gold Town Theater, at 171 Shattuck Way, Suite 109, inside the Emporium Mall.

“It’s a really unusual combination of the Shakespeare and Alaska Native culture,” Maynard-Losh said. “Other than this production, it’s not something that they will see. This is a very unique interpretation of this play.”

Other new events during Celebration, according to SHI:

Juried Film Festival

Jurors chose four films from 10 submissions to show during the event. SHI will announce the winners and their film titles at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in the clan house at SHI’s Walter Soboleff Building, which will also include awards for the Juried Art Show and Competition and the Juried Youth Art Exhibit.

Jurors were Ed Littlefield, a Tlingit percussionist, educator and composer, and Frank Katasse, a Tlingit actor, director, producer, improviser, educator and playwright.

The films will be shown at 6 p.m. Friday at the Gold Town Theater.

Blanket Toss

The toss is traditionally a feature of Native Youth Olympics (sometimes called Traditional Games), an annual event where athletes compete in events that are based on the hunting and survival skills of the Indigenous peoples of Alaska and across the Arctic going back thousands of years.

Today, the blanket toss is done for fun, but traditionally it was used in the Arctic to allow a hunter to see across the horizon to hunt game. The objective is to stay balanced and not fall over.

The event is scheduled for 11:40 a.m. Thursday at the Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus plaza.

Elder Photo Booth

SHI will have a photo booth at Centennial Hall in the Elders’ Room to document Elders attending Celebration. Elders ages 65 and older are welcome to partake in this service wearing regalia or street clothes. The images may be used by SHI for educational and cultural purposes. Elders will receive a copy of their portrait after Celebration.

• Contact Jasz Garrett at jasz.garrett@juneauempire.com or (907) 723-9356.

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