Tlingit and Haida Dancers spend weeks practicing for Celebration

The Tlingit and Haida Dancers of Anchorage practice for Celebration. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus/KNBA)

The Tlingit and Haida Dancers of Anchorage practice for Celebration. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus/KNBA)

Starting on Wednesday, Juneau will be overflowing with thousands of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people enjoying Celebration, a traditional dance and cultural event hosted by the Sealaska Heritage Institute every two years.

The Tlingit and Haida Dancers of Anchorage are getting ready to go to celebration. With tables and chairs pushed aside, a couple of dozen people are singing and dancing in a large room at the Alaska Native Medical Center. Almost half of them are under the age of ten. Between songs, the kids play. Two boys ask a young man to lift them up towards the ceiling, which he does a couple times each. A girl does cartwheels across the room. A six-year-old has her arms tightly wrapped around her friend as she carries her a few feet across the room.

celebration_coverageDuring the songs, children might rest in their mother’s lap, watch from the sidelines, or join in the dancing. Austin Sumdum, a U.S. Marine on leave, says he started dancing at the same kind of free-flowing practice.

“Growing up, no one forced me to dance, so I was able to just go up on my own, cause I was just like, ‘oh, they’re doing that’ and I was just kind of jealous, cause like I was sitting down for a while. I think it wasn’t until I was four I actually got into it. I was like, ‘oh my Dad’s doing it; okay I’ll do it,’ ” he says.

The group meets once a week, and more often in the weeks leading up to Celebration, where there’ll be art shows, language classes and dancing. The schedule has dozens of dance groups on stage from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., but performances often go later at night. Nae Brown, leader of the Tlingit and Haida Dancers of Anchorage, says Celebration is a liberating experience.

“Going to Celebration is a really empowering event because you get to be you for three whole days without any explanations, without having to like prove anything or say anything. You just are and that’s a really nice feeling,” she says.

No matter what else is happening in her life, Brown says she always has dance practice to look forward to, something she wants to pass on to her one-year-old daughter.

“Growing up in a dance group, I don’t know any other way of life. So to not have this, I don’t feel like I would have any kind of anchor to the life that I lead now. It’s really been my anchor throughout our childhood and I’m lucky that I’m able to pass that on to my daughter so she can grow up in the same way we did. It was a very rich lifestyle that we led,” she says.

The group holds raffles, bake sales and garage sales to raise travel money. Brown says they’ll be fundraising and practicing their dance moves right up to the day they leave. Celebration kicks off Wednesday evening and continues through Saturday in Juneau.