The thump of rawhide drums and the voices — chanting and singing — of those beating them carried over the embankment separating the Douglas Harbor from Sandy Beach, where hundreds of onlookers watched as 10 canoes made their way up the Gastineau Channel.
It was just after 11 a.m. Wednesday, and the members of the One People Canoe Society were in the last leg of a canoe journey hundreds of miles and several days in length. Each year since 2008, people from communities all over Southeast Alaska have paddled from their hometowns to Juneau to kick off Celebration, a biennial festival of Alaska Native culture.
“It opens so many doors in regard to our cultural values: living off the land, our song and our dance,” Rhonda Butler told the Empire while she waited at the harbor with her 3-year-old son, Richard Chilton.
His father, Doug Chilton, was the head skipper of the voyage. He founded the One People Canoe Society and started the canoe trip to Celebration.
“I think these types of events are very, very important for our children,” Butler said. “They teach that we can live without our cellphones and the internet. That we can reignite our culture.”
As the paddlers drew closer to the harbor, the drums and singing grew louder. By the time they rounded the breakwater and entered the harbor, the 300 to 400 people on the shore were ecstatic, exchanging shouts with the paddlers still in their boats. Though the canoe landing is not an officially sanctioned part of Celebration, it was clear the festival had begun.
As a part of the event, the skipper of each boat presents his or her crew, tells where they are from, then asks the crowd whether they have permission to come ashore.
“Our journey was long and wet, but we have new friends because of it!” Albert Hinchman, skipper of the Hoonah canoe, shouted to the cheering crowd as he introduced his boat.
A few moments after getting out of his canoe, Hinchman described the long journey, paddles still in hand. His boat had left Hoonah on Saturday. The fleet of canoes, of which his was a part, encountered bad weather almost immediately.
Pouring rain, wet clothes and soaked sleeping bags did nothing to dampen the spirits of his paddlers, most of whom he described as “youngsters.” The youngest paddler in his boat was 10 years old.
“We had to fight the whole way,” Hinchman said, recounting the trip. “We fought the wind, the rain, the waves, the tide. We fought together as a team.”
Despite all of the fighting, there wasn’t a frown to be seen on the faces of any of the paddlers as they stepped out of their boats and into the embrace of family members who waited for them on the shore. Many of the paddlers hadn’t seen their loved ones — unless they were paddling together — for days.
Having just completed the trip for a second time, Hinchman said he wasn’t sure which he was more excited about: a hot shower, a cold meal or the festivities of Celebration.
Among the roughly 100 people who arrived in canoes Wednesday were a few celebrity paddlers. Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot joined the canoe convoy a couple miles down channel of the harbor.
“It is such an honor for me to be here today, to be some small part of this Celebration,” Walker said from his canoe, addressing the crowd gathered in the harbor. “I like hearing the talk of One People. We have one state where everyone is equal — rural, urban, it doesn’t make a difference.”
Bringing Native people together from all over Alaska is one of the reasons why Celebration was started in the early ‘80s, but it wasn’t the sole reason. A major focus of the four-day festival — and of the canoe journey — is to unite people from different generations.
Butler, who first paddled to Celebration in 2010, missed the last two canoe trips after giving birth to her son. She doesn’t plan to miss a third. She and Chilton are already training young Richard to skipper a canoe, an important cultural lesson, which they hope he’ll be able to make use of come next Celebration.
Richard Chilton isn’t the only one being schooled in Alaska Native traditions. About 50 yards from the core drumming crowd — about 40 people strong — a woman led a drum group of her own. Only, her drummers were considerably younger than the others.
While the other drummers thundered away, Donna McKay, a song and dance teacher of 27 years from Wrangell, was helping Keira Krick and Kyah Martin, both 6 years old, find their voices.
“Louder,” she instructed as the girls sung. She gently took the mallet, with which Martin was beating the hide drum, in her hand and showed her how to strike the drum with more force.
“If, from the time that they are born, we can expose children to this, ours might not be a lost culture,”’ McKay said, watching as the girls continued to beat the drum and sing.
• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.