Cheriese Brown got more than she bargained for when she stepped off the Carnival Splendor megaship after it docked at Marine Park, since between her and the gift shops a few dozen meters away was a rather large number of colorfully festive people for a Saturday morning.
Brown, a Florida resident traveling with three family members, said she got a bit of a heads-up before departing the ship something special was afoot in Juneau during their daylong visit, but finding herself in the midst of one of the highlight events on the final day of Celebration was both a bigger and more intimately personal thrill than she could have anticipated.
“I just love to see the different cultures and the different tribes, and it just tells a story about how Alaska has a lot of enrichment,” she said while watching several hundred Alaska Natives gathering nearby for the start of a parade through downtown.
Brown’s family frequently paused their sidewalk stroll along the downtown gift shops to take photos with participants on their way to the parade, including an encounter with Angoon resident Daniel Brown of the Teikweidei (Brown Bear) Clan — no relation, of course except through a shared moment of laughter and camaraderie.
“I get their permission first,” Cheriese Brown said. “You have to be respectful.”
She said she probably took pictures and exchanged greetings with about 20 Celebration participants and, if all the nuances of the four-day gathering couldn’t be absorbed in a fleeting late-morning cultural immersion, the prevailing theme of cherishing cultures came though clear.
“Celebration for me here is just to know the life stories of different people,” she said.
For Denise Schooley, another passenger aboard the Splendor, the day was both a return home after a 35-year absence and a chance to share one of Juneau’s most unique gatherings with three generations of her family ages 3 to 82. She said it was considerably more appealing than classically popular options such as revisiting the (now considerably shrunken) Mendenhall Glacier.
“I’d rather have my kids walk around, listen to the music and see the parade,” she said.
Schooley said she lived in Juneau for four years starting only a few years after the first Celebration 40 years ago, working at the hospital and the Red Dog Saloon, the latter of which was of course a must-see spot for her family that just happened to be the starting point of the parade.
“It does seem like there’s a lot more people here and a lot more of the community involved,” she said, comparing it to her experiences during some of the first Celebrations.
Her husband, Teague, said he knew little about Celebration when he arrived, but it was easy to understand his wife’s enthusiasm for the event and return to her long-ago hometown.
“What I’m seeing here is exactly that I imagined,” he said. “Individuals proud of their heritage.”
Watching the parade was a whirlwind of emotions for Mary Snook, a Ketchikan resident who said she is used to being in the procession, not watching it from a sidewalk as she did Saturday with her two dogs. But the descendent of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian ancestry said too many members of her community’s dance group were unable to be in Juneau for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My heart is full,” she said. “I miss it. I love it.”
As with some of the out-of-state visitors, Snook took numerous photos and exchanged greetings with passing parade participants — although in her case it was clear they knew each other well. And unlike Schooley’s impression of more participation than remembered long ago, Snook said the size of the gathering compared to her most recent experience was a contrast.
“This year is so small and the restrictions are hard, especially on the elders as well as the little kids,” she said.
Celebration officials estimate about 1,200 dancers are at this year’s event, compared to more than 2,000 who participated in the most recent in-person gathering in 2018.
The energy and spirit of this year’s performers got off to perhaps a counter-intuitive start on the final morning as most of them were told to “hold still” as they crowded into a semi-circle in the newly opened Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus , Antnané Hít, for a group photo. Or, more precisely, 15 photos shot at ⅛-second exposure each that will be electronically stitched into a panorama, a process repeated three times in case a few too many people were blurry in some of the takes.
Afterward they broke into applause and chants before making their highly visible trek to the parade starting line — many stopping to greet and pose for pictures with visitors along the way.