When David Boxley struck his deer-hide drum, it was time to celebrate.
And with that, more than 2,000 people danced, sang and enjoyed a reunion among nearly 50 groups who had traveled anywhere from one mile to 1,000 miles—just to dance.
They came to Juneau, Alaska, from within the state, from neighboring British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, and from Washington. Most were of Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida descent, and they have arrived every two years since 1982 for a chance to perform on two stages and on Juneau’s streets. The event, held every other year, is called simply Celebration, and it is the state’s largest cultural Native event.
“What we are celebrating is that our culture is continuous,” said Boxley, the Tsimshian leader of the Seattle-based group Git-Hoan. “We are being successful in passing it on to the next generation.”
Once dance groups arrive, this coastal community of 32,000 residents—accessible by plane or boat—gets immersed into the state’s indigenous culture and history in a way no other Alaska city can offer.
“For decades our culture was not out in the open; now you see it everywhere,” said Tlingit leader Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, the event sponsor. “The important lesson right now is bringing our culture out into the into the open trying to get non-Natives to understand what our culture is about because they are important to our survival as well.”
Worl, who was part of the first Celebration, said the event represents cultural survival honoring not only Elders for their gifts of wisdom, but also ancestors. It’s not just a celebration, she said, but it also teaches dancers to care for cultural objects, as well as history, stories and values embedded in each piece of regalia and the songs. In fact regalia—robes, blankets, masks—sometimes need to be sent ahead by barge in separate containers ahead of the dancers to ensure proper care.
“What may look like just a dance, it’s so much more,” Worl said. “It has spiritual dimensions; it has social dimensions; it has social dimensions; it’s about relationships between the individuals and their clans.”
Boxley’s Git-Hoan troupe served as the lead group and is made up of 15 dancers as young as age two and as old as 64. They energize an audience with high-tempo dances and drums, and with agile movements covering the entire stage.
Born in Meltakatla, Alaska, Boxley is an accomplished carver whose work includes more than 75 totem poles standing in his home village, a stark reminder of what didn’t exist for him as a child, and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.
“My generation growing up, we had nothing—I mean nothing,” he said. “There is a whole generation, they don’t know any different. I really enjoy the fact that the young people are becoming the leaders. So many of my generation and the one before, we were hesitant or were afraid. Now, there is so much pride with these young people. That’s what Celebration is becoming.”
Boxley’s carving carries over into dance performances in the form of his handmade masks and box drums. Git Hoan is among a few Celebration groups that integrate art and dance, a group signature, said Worl.
“The way he uses the masks is innovation in terms of bringing the art into public dance performance,” Worl said. “He has taken some of the traditional dancing masks, some of the ceremonial pieces and has brought all of that into the open. It seems theatrical, and it is in the sense that it is a public performance. But he strikes the right balance between traditional and changing cultures.”
In 2015 Boxley earned a fellowship from the Native Artists and Cultures Foundation, which enabled him to create a new set of masks made of red cedar for dancers.
“Our masks are solid connections with our past,” Boxley said. “If you look in natural history museums all over the world, they are chock full of every kind of mask you see us using.”
Boxley then noted a previous performance at the Smithsonian in New York City where there had also been an exhibit of masks and other regalia.
“We were able to tell the school groups who were watching us, ‘Go to that exhibit and look. This is a living culture. It’s not just in a case on a shelf,’ ” Boxley said. “They could see us using them. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Celebration lasts just four days, but the memories remain vivid for months. Photos are exchanged, posted on social media sites and preserved well after the final dance and long into summer.
Discussions about the next gathering in two years quickly begin with thoughts of new songs to complement those still preserved. Groups will return with new masks, new robes and new dances, never forgetting the Elders who laid the foundation with the first Celebration 42 years ago.
“I’ve got ideas already,” said Robert Davidson, a Vancouver-based Haida artist who leads the Rainbow Creek Dancers. “It all derives from stories. When I was re-learning songs from my grandparents, a lot of the philosophies were foreign to me.”
That’s when he knew he had to step up.
“I realized it was up to my generation to give meaning to these songs,” Davidson said. “It’s almost like a relay. Every generation is adapting to a whole new way of thinking. Learning our ancient songs gives me a foundation to expand on and create new songs.”