As National Native American Heritage Month nears, Juneau prepares to celebrate in high style as it hosts a first-of-its-kind event, the Rock Aak’w Indigenous Music Festival.
Fourteen groups will perform for the virtual festival, with some performing from afar and some from right here in Juneau, said Stephen Qucang Blanchett, the festival’s creative director and co-founder of band Pamyua, who will perform during the festival.
“We’re trying to uplift the industry of Indigenous performers and bring this platform to light in the U.S. This is something we’ve identified and talked about for decades,” Blanchett said in a phone interview. “There are music festivals that have Indigenous stages, but those are stages that are usually off to a corner of the festival.”
The festival, scheduled for Nov. 5-6, will kick off with a welcoming ceremony for artists as Juneau celebrates a First Friday, said project manager Taylor Vidic. Aak’w, sometimes spelled Auke or Auk, is a prevalent word in Juneau. According to Keri Edwards’ “Dictionary of Tlingit,” Aak’w is the Tlingit name for Auke Bay, it’s also part of the name of the Indigenous peoples, the Aak’w Kwaan.
“We have, I think, 11 cultures coming from countries all around the world,” Blanchett said. “We have huge support from the community. It’s been two years in the making.”
Blanchett said the festival’s working group has collaborated as they reached out to see who could make it — and who the festival could afford to bring in. Artists hail from Alaska, the Lower 48, Canada and as far away as Mozambique, according to the festival website.
“Every single person we reached out to was on board,” Blanchett said. “We are on a budget. It costs a lot to put together a festival. We had to make tough decisions about who to bring up.”
Blanchett recognized members of the working group, including ChandraBOOM of KXLL , for suggesting new artists.
“She brought some names that I’ve never heard of,” Blanchett said. “It was truly a collaborative mix. When we put together our working group, we looked to those guys for suggestions. We had a spreadsheet of 60 or so Indigenous acts: People that I’ve come across in different musical venues, people that I’ve heard of, people that I’ve admired.”
Blanchett and nearly a dozen others in the working group have been meeting weekly since getting a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support the festival. The festival, which will cost about $145,000, according to the festival website, has gotten more than $100,000 in support from grants and community sponsors, Vidic said. Sponsors range across the community, from the initial NEA grant, to the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, Western States Arts Federation, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, University of Alaska Southeast, Alaska Airlines, KTOO Public Media, Sealaska Corporation, Goldbelt Corporation, Juneau Radio Center, and Sealaska Heritage Institute, according to the festival website.
“It has been a joy for me to get to learn about all the artists that are applying. Juneau has never had a music festival like this, Indigenous or not,” Vidic said. “We’re bringing world-class artists to town.”
Ticket sales are expected to help make up the gap, Blanchett said. While the tickets are on sale for whatever the buyer can afford, the value of a pass for the full festival weekend is at $100. By comparison, for a festival like South by Southwest, online-only passes begin at $350, while the price for an in-person ticket for the music portion alone is $1,045.
“This is what it would take to make this festival sustainable,” Blanchett said. “There’s two ways to get access. You can purchase raffle tickets. The other is just going to the website and buying a ticket.”
Along with the stream of the performances themselves, Vidic said, local businesses have partnered with the festival to offer special fare for watch parties and enjoying the streaming experience. The idea came from Melanie Brown, Vidic said. Businesses including Amalga Distillery, Barnacle Foods, and Coppa are offering locally sourced and made food, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks for the affair. There’s also Indigenous recipes that people can make themselves available on the festival website.
“(Brown) began reaching out to this list of businesses,” Vidic said. “People are experiencing virtual fatigue at this point. We wanted to figure out how to make the virtual festival feel less virtual.”
While Blanchett said he’s extremely excited about the festival, the decision to have it go virtual was a hard one.
“The pandemic definitely threw a wrench in the gears. It was a challenge. We went back and forth on the idea that we were going to be virtual, or if we were going to be in-person,” Blanchett said. “In late August, we finally said it out loud. That was a tough day. We all wanted it to be in-person.”
For the next iteration of the festival, scheduled for 2023, Blanchett wants to see stages in venues downtown from Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, Centennial Hall, and outdoors, bringing hundreds to the festival, and giving Juneau an internationally unique festival celebrating Indigenous music and culture.
We want people to come together and witness and see the beauty of Indigenous music. It’s not just drums and flutes. We have every genre out there,” Blanchett said. “We’re seeing this as a marquee destination festival. The sky’s the limit, right? If we build it right people come from all over the world.”