(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.
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