In 1982, the fledgling Native nonprofit Sealaska Heritage Institute held a dance-and-culture festival to celebrate the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. At the time, Native people were emerging from a long period of cultural oppression by Westerners, and they worried that young people weren’t learning their ancient songs and dances.
A couple of hundred Native people gathered in Juneau for the event, called Celebration.
They could not have imagined then that Celebration would spark a movement across the region — a renaissance of Native culture that prompted people largely unfamiliar with their heritage to learn their ancestral songs and dances and to make regalia for future Celebrations.
Today, Celebration is one of the largest cultural events in the state, drawing thousands of people to the five-day festival. It is the largest gathering of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people in the world.
It has grown to include associated events, including a Juried Art Show and Competition, a Juried Youth Art Exhibit, a Toddler Regalia Review, an Indigenous Fashion Show, a Native Artist Market, and Native food contests.
The biennial event is schedule in early June every even year in Juneau. Everyone is welcome to attend.
Check back soon for applications and more information on Celebration 2024.
Time-honored customs made new
Prior to European contact, the peoples of the Northwest Coast held many traditional ceremonies in which singing, dancing, formal oratory, and feasting took place. As the economy of the region changed to one based on cash rather than trade and sharing, some Native traditions floundered. Dance, song, traditional oratory, and knowledge of clan protocol were in danger of being lost to history. Realizing this, Native elders created Celebration as a way to bring Native people together to showcase and preserve their traditions and customs.
Celebration is a new tradition. During earlier times, a clan from one moiety would always host a clan from the other moiety. An Eagle clan, for example, might host a Raven clan and, then, the reverse would occur in order that balance, reciprocity, and respect be maintained. Those who danced together as either hosts or guests were from one clan, one side. Now, clan members have scattered in order to pursue careers and personal interests, and the formal system of reciprocal obligation has become more difficult to maintain although traditional ceremonies are still a vital part of Northwest Coast culture. At Celebration, some clan members still gather as single-clan Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian dance groups but most groups at Celebration represent combinations of many clans.
As times have changed, the peoples of the Northwest Coast have adopted revitalized festival traditions while continuing to maintain the old. Although Celebration follows the pattern of a traditional ceremonial it is not a potlatch or memorial party. Adoptions, name giving, memorial services, and other events that are a proper part of those traditional gatherings are not part of Celebration and are observed at other times.