A centuries-old tradition since 1982.
Sealaska Heritage Institute’s board of trustees has opted to cancel Celebration 2021, which was tentatively scheduled for June this year after the coronavirus sidelined the in-person event in 2000. The decision came today after the board assessed the latest scientific evidence on the state of the pandemic. One of the primary reasons for the cancellation is that the vaccine is not yet available for kids under age 16.
The board will revisit the issue at a later date to decide whether it’s safe to sanction a Celebration in 2022, which in normal times would occur in June.
For four days every other June, the streets of Juneau fill with Native people of all ages dressed in the signature regalia of clans from throughout Southeast Alaska and beyond. There is traditional song and dance. Arts and crafts. Food. And people speaking local Native languages. This is Celebration, our biennial festival of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures.
Celebration is one of the largest gatherings of Southeast Alaska Native peoples and is the second-largest event sponsored by Alaska Natives in the State of Alaska. The event draws about 5,000 people, including more than 2,000 dancers. Thousands more watch the event online. A 2012 study showed each Celebration generates an estimated economic impact of $2,000,000.
Prior to European contact, the peoples of the Northwest Coast held many traditional ceremonies in which singing, dancing, formal oratory, and feasting took place. As the economy of the region changed to one based on cash rather than trade and sharing, some Native traditions floundered. Dance, song, traditional oratory, and knowledge of clan protocol were in danger of being lost to history. Realizing this, Native elders created Celebration as a way to bring Native people together to showcase and preserve their traditions and customs.
Celebration is a new tradition. During earlier times, a clan from one moiety would always host a clan from the other moiety. An Eagle clan, for example, might host a Raven clan and, then, the reverse would occur in order that balance, reciprocity, and respect be maintained. Those who danced together as either hosts or guests were from one clan, one side. Now, clan members have scattered in order to pursue careers and personal interests, and the formal system of reciprocal obligation has become more difficult to maintain although traditional ceremonies are still a vital part of Northwest Coast culture. At Celebration, some clan members still gather as single-clan Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian dance groups but most groups at Celebration represent combinations of many clans.
As times have changed, the peoples of the Northwest Coast have adopted revitalized festival traditions while continuing to maintain the old. Although Celebration follows the pattern of a traditional ceremonial it is not a potlatch or memorial party. Adoptions, name giving, memorial services, and other events that are a proper part of those traditional gatherings are not part of Celebration and are observed at other times.