‘It is so wonderful to be together again’: Celebration kicks off in Juneau

Celebration is back in Juneau, marking its 40th anniversary. A new downtown arts campus was officially opened on Wednesday.
Published: Jun. 8, 2022 at 7:12 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Celebration, a biennial four-day festival that celebrates Southeast Alaska’s Native peoples, dances and cultures, has kicked off in Juneau.

The festival is marking its 40th anniversary and is back in person after being held virtually in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are still reminders of the pandemic: everyone in attendance must be vaccinated and wearing face masks at indoor events.

Sealaska Heritage Institute hosts Celebration, which is expected to feature close to 1,200 dancers from 28 different dance groups. The festival is estimated to bring in upwards of $2 million in economic activity for the city.

Rosita Kaaháni Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, welcomed hundreds of people to the official opening of the institute’s new arts campus in downtown Juneau on Wednesday afternoon. She said it would allow for sharing of Northwest Coast art, which she described as a way to “open up our box of knowledge” with the world.

“It is so wonderful to be together again,” she said to applause about the return of Celebration.

The theme of the festival is “10,000 years of cultural survival.” But Worl announced that archaeologists have recently found fish weirs in underwater caves in Southeast Alaska that date from 17,000 years ago, suggesting Native people have been in the region for much longer than previously thought.

For decades, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian language and culture were suppressed by successive governments and in schools. Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of Central Council of Tlingit and Haida, said the new arts campus is putting those cultures front and center in downtown Juneau.

“This is going to be the crown jewel of our capital, the most beautiful capital in the country,” he said.

The centerpiece of the campus is a 360-degree totem pole, which is the first of its kind for Alaska. Hydaburg carver T.J. Sgwaayaans Young was the lead artist on the project, working alongside Tlingit and Tsimshian carvers.

“This was a fun one,” he said. “By fun, I mean a lot more work than usual.”

The 22-foot pole is carved out of a rare red cedar log. It depicts three faces at the top, representing Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples. Midway down the pole is a raven looking in one direction, and an eagle looking the opposite way, representing the two moieties, which are central aspects of Southeast Alaska Native cultures.

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