Wolf Drum by David Robert Boxley

The Sealaska Heritage Institute‘s Semi-Annual Celebration of Alaska Native song and dance is entering its third and final full day today, in Juneau, Alaska.

(Tune into the webcast here Saturday, and watch these amazing songs and dances live, while you read this arts diary in another window.)

Thousands of dancers from scores of groups have been here since Wednesday, when over a hundred participants arrived by canoe (traveling many miles!), fishing boat, ferry boat, or airplane.  You do not drive to Juneau.

I am here, learning more about Tlingit culture, before I embark upon a musical work in which I hope to tap into this rich, vibrant, changing and growing legacy.  I knew I knew too little before I came here.  I’m beginning to think there is no way I may ever know enough to present this music honestly through my own.

The renaissance of ritual song and dance art in Alaska Native musical culture is a story of resistance to attempts by our federal and state governments and various religions to force assimilation or eradication upon Natives and their ties to their tribal traditions, many of which pre-date the model upon which Western civilizations have been built, by many thousands of years.  If you can eradicate the songs, dances and rituals tied to spirituality of a culture, and make use of its language difficult to achieve, eradication will follow.

In the lower 48 states, this has been achieved 100% in hundreds, if not thousands, of cases.  In Hawaii and Alaska, the first Peoples have been more fortunate, though “fortunate” barely qualifies as a description of what has happened in these two states since the late 19th century.

Alaska Native tribes sought to redress government and religious encroachments all the way back into the early days of our country’s possession of the territory.  The city of Angoon, commemorates its 1882 destruction by the U.S. Navy through song and dance.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 established entities that were supposed to benefit the many tribes, peoples and villages of aboriginal Alaska. Some have been more successful than others.  Few of  these resultant corporations have understood the importance of the arts to language, culture, education and pride as deeply as has the Sealaska Heritage Institute.  The dominant tribes of Southeast Alaska, over which Sealaska Corporation oversees many programs, are Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.

The corporation is based in Juneau, deep in Tlingit territory.  The current song and dance celebration, being hosted by Tlingit, is elaborately adorned with rituals of courtesy, honor and familial references.  Many participants can cite their lineage back far further than any Mormon I’ve ever known.  And with deeper respect for those gone – ancestors, and those still present – elders.  And most of these tribal families have seen much intermarriage.  Not just since the time of the Russians and Americans, but before – with members of inland tribes with whom they had trading ties.

The most powerful single aspect of this to me has been the overwhelming presence of young people , children and babies, participating on stage with the groups.  Right alongside their grandparents or great-grandparents, dancing with energy. Disabled tribal members are helped along, so they may gain strength from the spirits of the singing and dancing.  The multi-generational component and the fierce pride of the young people are humbling:

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When songs are presented at the festival, homage is done to the composer of the song when known, and to its links to the present performance.  The path the melody has taken sometimes takes minutes to explain.  The power of something like this being described by people who currently practice a vibrant oral history component of remembering and learning is quite overwhelming.

Friday, Metlakatla sculptor David Boxley was honored for his work over the years.  He may be the greatest living totem pole carver.  He also participates, along with most of his family, in song and dance traditions.  He has designed many masks and bentwood drums, and has decorated many ceremonial drums (as at the top of the post).

Here is a box drum, created for the performing group, Git-Hoan:

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Here’s a box drum in use Thursday – my image:

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Here’s a video about Boxley’s work, from the National Museum of the American Indian:

You can watch the concluding day’s songs and dances at Sealaska’s live webcast, beginning at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.

Here is the link to the webcast.

It will last much of Saturday afternoon and evening.  Enjoy it!

Here is the procession passing my window, minutes ago:

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