One of Southeast Alaska’s biggest cultural events was supposed to kick off in Juneau on June 10. But Celebration 2020 has been postponed at least a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Harvey Shields is a leader with the Cape Fox Dancers in Saxman and he remembers the months, even years it sometimes takes to plan and prepare for Celebration in Juneau.
Of course, there’s practicing song and dance.
Then, there’s all the fundraising to pay for transportation and lodging for as many as a hundred people in the dance group.
“We all go by ferry as far as being the least amount (of money) for the dance group,” Sheilds said. “It’s real hard to take that many on a plane.”
And, there’s creating new regalia, especially for kids who are just learning the songs, dances and stories themselves.
“I really enjoy watching and seeing the younger kids being a big part of it because there are the ones that’s going to take over of what we’ve been doing for a lot of years,” he said.
Celebration started in 1982 when only a few hundred Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people met in Juneau. Now held every two years, it has since grown to be one of the largest cultural gatherings in Alaska.
Celebration is not happening this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. But Shields says, he understands.
“Our elders have to be taken care of very special because that’s who we look up to,” Shields said.
In downtown Juneau this week, it’s relatively quiet as a handful of vehicles and buses drive through during morning rush hour.
Missing are the parades of several thousand people dressed in their colorful regalia, drumming and singing through downtown Juneau. The convention center where nearly fifty dance groups would perform continuously for days is silent.
Instead, Celebration has gone virtual this year with popular events like the juried art show and a fashion show held on line.
“I think there’s a lot of people right now that are heartbroken in the Yukon that want to be at Celebration,” said Teslin resident Juanita Kremer.
She counts about 450 other Tlingit around her community.
Kremer said it’s always a powerful experience to meet up with so many Tlingit from Southeast Alaska and beyond.
“And a lot more language speakers, a lot more knowledge carriers than we realize,” Kremer said. “So, it really just reinvigorates my soul to go to Celebration and see Tlingit dancers and language, and culture, our foods brought to the forefront.”
Kremer said a lot of people have developed relationships and created bonds up and down the coast because of Celebration.
For Shields, it’s also about rediscovering forgotten family connections. He said it’s not uncommon to meet a family member at Celebration and not even know it at first. But then everyone names their parents and grandparents and where they’re from, siblings,and aunties and uncles.
“That gets them to thinking: ‘Well, that’s my aunt as well and that’s my uncle. And, that’s my aunt and uncle as well,’” Sheilds remembers. “From there, that’s where it comes out.”
Celebration 2020 has been rescheduled for June 2021.
In the meantime, Kremer said they’ve been filling the void by watching previous Celebration events on social media.
Editor’s note: KTOO is under contract with Sealaska Heritage Institute to produce television and online video coverage of this year’s virtual Celebration.