Indigenous celebrations took center stage in Juneau in 2023, including the debut of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí (Totem Pole Trail), launch of the Hōkūle‘a 47-month Polynesian canoe voyage and Áak’w Rock Indigenous music festival. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photos)

Indigenous celebrations took center stage in Juneau in 2023, including the debut of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí (Totem Pole Trail), launch of the Hōkūle‘a 47-month Polynesian canoe voyage and Áak’w Rock Indigenous music festival. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photos)

Juneau’s top 10 arts and culture stories of 2023

Indigenous events and celebrations took center stage throughout the year.

Juneau’s first amateur porn film festival, first crowning of a Miss Gay Alaska America and a bunch of Bigfoot fans arriving on a boat didn’t make the cut.

Taking their places in the spotlight, respectively, were an international Indigenous music festival, a part-time local resident crowned Mr. Gay World and a 47-month Polynesian canoe voyage.

Alaska’s capital city — which ranked eighth among the 10 most arts-vibrant small communities in the U.S. this year, according to SMU DataArts, experienced plenty of traditional and new cultural happenings in 2023. And, as the items listed above hint at, some of the biggest moments combined both.

In particular, contributions by the local Alaska Native and broader Indigenous community stood out as their efforts to preserve and highlight their historic culture also made them politically and economically prominent.

It was a year when landmark organizations celebrated landmark anniversaries — including the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council’s 50th year, and Trail Mix’s 30th — but the events associated with those occasions fell short of the top 10. And while certain annual events such as the Alaska Folk Festivals continued to draw strong crowds, there wasn’t anything distinct enough to make this year stand out compared to others.

Similarly, the reopening of a remodeled Centennial Hall after nearly nine months of renovations was certainly welcome for organizers of large-scale cultural events, but not a major event itself despite the artistic improvements.

With that in mind, the following is a countdown of the Juneau Empire’s top 10 arts and culture stories of 2023.

Ricardo Galindo tattoos a raven onto Juneau resident Sky Martin on Thursday, Aug. 24, at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall during the Ink Masters Tattoo Show. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

Ricardo Galindo tattoos a raven onto Juneau resident Sky Martin on Thursday, Aug. 24, at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall during the Ink Masters Tattoo Show. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

10. Tattoo guns and roses lure hundreds to first-ever Ink Masters expo in Juneau

It wasn’t a first-ever event in Juneau on the scale of last year’s now-infamous Ironman Alaska, but the organizer of the inaugural Ink Masters Tattoo Show locally seems to actually mean it when he says the event will return next year. Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall buzzed with the sound of tattoo guns and loud music as hundreds of people walked through rows of the 90 tattoo or piercing artists that set up shop for the three-day expo in August. Most of the artists came from outside Alaska, offering a variety of ink options not typically available to locals. The expo which was founded in 2009 travels around the country annually, with Juneau among 43 stops planned during 2023.

The children’s book “I Would Tuck You In,” illustrated by Mitchell Thomas Watley, is shown at a bookstore in Portland, Ore. in this April 5 photo. Publisher Sasquatch books, owned by Penguin Random House, said the same day it has ended its publishing relationship with Watley after he was arrested on allegations of leaving violent, transphobic notes in stores around Juneau. Watley told police he was motivated by fear following a deadly school shooting in Nashville that sparked online backlash about the shooter’s gender identity, court records show. (Claire Rush / AP file photo)

The children’s book “I Would Tuck You In,” illustrated by Mitchell Thomas Watley, is shown at a bookstore in Portland, Ore. in this April 5 photo. Publisher Sasquatch books, owned by Penguin Random House, said the same day it has ended its publishing relationship with Watley after he was arrested on allegations of leaving violent, transphobic notes in stores around Juneau. Watley told police he was motivated by fear following a deadly school shooting in Nashville that sparked online backlash about the shooter’s gender identity, court records show. (Claire Rush / AP file photo)

9. Popular children’s illustrator arrested, works pulled from stores, after transphobic notes posted

While most items in this list are about additions and/or celebrations of local culture, Juneau attracted national headlines after Mitchell Thomas Watley, 47, was arrested in late March for allegedly posting transphobic notes at locations around town that referenced shooting kids. He was a children’s book illustrator known for drawing mother-baby animal pairs like sea otters and wolves for books with titles like “I Would Tuck You in,” but the notes featured images of an assault rifle superimposed over the transgender flag and text reading “Feeling Cute Might Shoot Some Children.” Juneau bookstores quickly pulled his products from shelves and his publisher dropped him shortly afterward. His case on four felony charges of felony terroristic threatening is pending, with his next scheduled court hearing in February.

Troy Michael Smith, a part-time Juneau resident, at the Mr. Gay World competition on Oct. 27 in Cape Town, South Africa, where he prevailed among the 11 candidates. (Photo courtesy of Rudi Du Toit Photography)

Troy Michael Smith, a part-time Juneau resident, at the Mr. Gay World competition on Oct. 27 in Cape Town, South Africa, where he prevailed among the 11 candidates. (Photo courtesy of Rudi Du Toit Photography)

8. Half-time Juneau resident Troy Michael Smith wins Mr. Gay World

Troy Michael Smith beat 11 international competitors for the title in Cape Town, South Africa, on Oct. 27, with categories including national costume, swimwear, formal wear, rapid question, final question, sportswear and a public vote. “There were very rough categories including an extremely difficult written exam about LGBTQIA+ history and current events,” he wrote in a text afterward. “There was a social responsibility category where you had to deliver a presentation for 10 minutes and answer questions in front of the judges as well as the other contestants.” Formerly Troy Wuhts-Smith, he ran for a Juneau Assembly seat in 2021, losing in a three-person race to ‘Wáahlaal Gíidaak Barbara Blake. A profile about Smith as a candidate listed his employer as Alaska Airlines and his company, Crowned LLC, as a pageant consultancy. That put him in touch with a lot of contestants, eventually leading to his decision to compete in Mr. Gay World. He said he planned to use his victory as a platform for greater awareness of mental illness.

Rae Mills, a mentor with the “Weaving Our Pride” project, hangs strands of wool yarn on a loom that will be used to create two Pride Robes at the Zach Gordon Youth Center on Friday, July 7. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Rae Mills, a mentor with the “Weaving Our Pride” project, hangs strands of wool yarn on a loom that will be used to create two Pride Robes at the Zach Gordon Youth Center on Friday, July 7. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

7. Year-long “Weaving Our Pride” robes project involving youths, traditional mentors begins

The sheer scope of the project — participants gathering together for a few hours four times a week for a year — to produce two ceremonial Alaska Native LGBTQ+ Youth Pride Robes reveals the complexity and teachings involved between the mentors leading the project and local youths learning the craft. The weaving began in July at the Zach Gordon Youth Center, with organizers hoping to complete the robes in time for next year’s Celebration. One robe each will be created using Chilkat and Ravenstail techniques, with an official description of the project stating the robes “will be created together by Native, non-Native, queer, straight, cis-gender, transgender, allies, and all identities youth to sit side by side for one year.” Once completed, the robes will remain at the youth center where people will be able to wear them for “graduations, naming ceremonies, coming out parties, and significant Native and non-Native Pride events,” according to the project’s description.

Xáat Kwáani sits on the wet tarmac at Juneau International Airport after landing Friday, May 12. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire file photo)

Xáat Kwáani sits on the wet tarmac at Juneau International Airport after landing Friday, May 12. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire file photo)

6. Alaska Airlines unveils “salmon plane” by Crystal Kaakeeyáa Worl

There will doubtless be jokes for many years about something “being fishy with that fight” aboard Alaska Airlines’ Xáat Kwáani 737-800 aircraft that made its official debut May 12. The plane’s name is Lingít for “Salmon People,” and the aircraft’s body is adorned by both the Native words and elaborate blue-white formline traditional art by Juneau artist Crystal Kaakeeyáa Worl, who is Tlingit and Athabascan. “This will be significant to have Indigenous language on an airplane,” she said. “People will see it, they’ll read it, they’ll try to say ‘Xáat Kwáani’ (Salmon People), and they’ll want to know more and be curious to learn about it and want to feel connected to it. I’m excited to be part of this.”

Randal Jim (center) and Joey Ludlam replace a “Seward St.” with a “Heritage Way” sign at midday Wednesday, Nov. 1, the day the new name became official for a two-block portion of the downtown street. About 50 local tribal leaders, city officials and others attended a ceremony at Sealaska Plaza marking the name change effort that originated in April. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Randal Jim (center) and Joey Ludlam replace a “Seward St.” with a “Heritage Way” sign at midday Wednesday, Nov. 1, the day the new name became official for a two-block portion of the downtown street. About 50 local tribal leaders, city officials and others attended a ceremony at Sealaska Plaza marking the name change effort that originated in April. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

5. South Seward Street renamed Heritage Way

What began as a comment during a public ceremony in April became reality on Nov. 1 when a sign next to City Hall reading “Seward St.” spent its final moments defaced with fresh red paint before it was replaced with one reading “Heritage Way.” four other signs along a two-block section were also replaced with the new name first proposed by Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl. The northern portion of the street retails its original name of Seward Street, named after William H. Seward. He is known for his role in negotiating the purchase of the Alaska territory from the Russian Empire in 1867 and some Southeast Alaska residents — including Worl — have condemned his role in the suppression of Alaska Native culture.

The cover of the children’s story “Kuhaantí,” the first book of its kind released in Lingít in decades, according to people who collaborated on the project. (Image courtesy of Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska)

The cover of the children’s story “Kuhaantí,” the first book of its kind released in Lingít in decades, according to people who collaborated on the project. (Image courtesy of Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska)

4. Lingít-language “Kuhaantí” released as first children’s book of its kind in decades

The title translates to “orphan” in English, but people celebrating the release of the Lingít-language children’s book “Kuhaantí” on Oct. 27 emphasized the project is very much a multigenerational family effort by the Southeast Alaska Native community. The book is intended to be the first of nine books and animated videos produced during the next two years sharing tribal stories in their Native language, the first publications of their kind in decades, according to officials involved with the project. University of Alaska Southeast language professor X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell collaborated on the authoring of the book — and the eight additional planned stories — by capturing in writing the stories told master Lingít speakers Kaxwaan Éesh George Davis and Shaksháani Marge Dutson. Numerous other tribal officials also participated in the translation process. The illustrations were done by artists G̲at X̲wéech Nick Alan Foote and Jaax̱snée Kelsey Mata Foote.

Students from the Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary dance during the procession of the dedication ceremony of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí, Totem Pole Trail, held Saturday, April 22, in downtown Juneau at Heritage Plaza. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

Students from the Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary dance during the procession of the dedication ceremony of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí, Totem Pole Trail, held Saturday, April 22, in downtown Juneau at Heritage Plaza. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

3. Celebrating the debut of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí (Totem Pole Trail)

A celebration for the raising of the first 12 of 30 totem poles along the Juneau waterfront that make up Kootéeyaa Deiyí (or Totem Pole Trail) saw several hundred people pack Heritage Square in late April. The poles carved by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian artists were raised along the waterfront during the preceding week, each depicting the crests of their respective clans and tribes. Most of the artists spent more than six months creating the poles after being commissioned by Sealaska Heritage Institute, which launched the Kootéeyaa Deiyí initiative in 2021 through a $2.9 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. New signs were installed for them in September explaining the story behind each totem and its significance.

Crew members of the Moananuiākea voyage from the Hōkūle‘a canoe paddle to the shore of Auke Bay as they are welcomed Saturday, June 10, by Juneau residents and tribal leaders. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

Crew members of the Moananuiākea voyage from the Hōkūle‘a canoe paddle to the shore of Auke Bay as they are welcomed Saturday, June 10, by Juneau residents and tribal leaders. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

2. Hōkūle‘a launches 47-month Polynesian canoe voyage from Juneau

This weeklong local gathering to launch a voyage seeking to unite the hundreds of Indigenous communities connected by the Pacific Ocean initially and instinctively seemed like the top local cultural story of the year. But while the sharing of histories and cultural traditions by local Alaska Natives and visiting members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society was remarkable for those participating, much of what happened was limited only to the participants themselves and poor weather thwarted plans for some public events including the outdoor launch ceremony for the voyage itself. However, the arrival ceremony on June 10 attracted many hundreds to the shores of Auke Bay to greet the wind-powered Hōkūle‘a canoe. Dockside tours of the canoe were offered to the public during the following days, and the launch ceremony was moved indoors so proper tributes and thanks could be shared. But the Hōkūle‘a’s departure was a quiet one, occurring at about 4:15 a.m. eight days after its arrival when a break in the weather occurred, as it set sail for other Southeast Alaska communities and beyond.

Snotty Nose Rez Kids rappers Yung Trybez and Young D sing to the crowd during a performance as part of the final night of the Áak’w Rock music festival at Centennial Hall on Saturday, Sept. 23. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

Snotty Nose Rez Kids rappers Yung Trybez and Young D sing to the crowd during a performance as part of the final night of the Áak’w Rock music festival at Centennial Hall on Saturday, Sept. 23. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

1. Áak’w Rock Indigenous music festival makes in-person debut

This massive music gathering featuring more than 70 Indigenous performers from locals to international artists — and the only Indigenous music festival in the country, according to organizers — staged what effectively was its first full-blown event in September, after its official debut two years took place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds attended the nightly concerts by a multitude of musicians in several venues throughout town, with Mozambique musician Albino Mbie — echoing similar comments by other visiting performers — saying being surrounded by other Indigenous artists in a community that celebrates its culture is what he’s been searching for since he first came to America. “Coming here, seeing the mountains, the culture — it’s pure resiliency,” he said. The festival is scheduled to take place every two years, alternating with Celebration, which next year will continue its decades-long tradition as one of the largest gatherings of Southeast Alaska Native communities.

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