Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Inequality: No Respect For Our First Nation Citizens (Blog Action Day)

I grew up in a small town, Juneau, Alaska, and not even in the main town, but on Douglas Island, across the Gastineau Channel from Juneau. My neighbors were fishermen, hunters, pilots, entrepreneurs and hard-working people struggling to make a living.

It was an upside down world. In most places, those who live there the longest are the leaders of society. In Southeast Alaska, those who lived there the longest were at the bottom of the heap, the Native Americans, the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. I went to school with them. Yes, the boys carried knives. No, they were not dirty, and none of my little friends in elementary school were drunks. We were kids, we played together, we were all in the same classes all through elementary school – it was a small school.

Many of them did have family problems. There were problems of alcoholism, unemployment, domestic violence and hunger. They weren’t the only ones. The big problem was no respect. Although there were a few pieces of Native Art in the city museum, Native culture and Native craft were given little value. The Native way of life, living off the land, hunting and fishing, had greatly diminished as lands were apportioned off and hunting and fishing activities regulated.

In 1971 a huge lawsuit was settled and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act provided some restoration for the damaged peoples. Alaska Natives now have regional corporations to administer and grow funds to support the culture, to provide education for the children, to provide health clinics and hospitals. SEALASKA began to organize a biennial Celebration, a gathering of all the Alaska natives to share their stories, to celebrate their culture, to dance and to transmit culture to their children. It’s a great opportunity for people you might see every day in their western life to remember where they come from and to be proud of who they are. This Celebration is held every two years and includes Alaska Natives from all over Alaska who want to participate. It is a very inclusive Celebration. The next Celebration will be June 8 – 11, in 2016. You can read a little more about Celebration 2014 here.

They learn the legends of their clans – the Eagles, The Ravens, the Beavers, the Bears and a number of other clans. They spend the time between celebrations stitching together elaborate costumes for their parade and dance exhibitions, hollowing out canoes from trees, making elaborate hats and masks.

We first learned of the Celebration gathering in 2012, when we already had tickets to go back to Zambia at the exact time the Celebration was taking place, but my sweet husband promised we could go back for the 2014 Celebration. As we researched, we discovered just how much of Alaska we wanted to see, and did a reconnaissance trip in 2013. We loved our time there, and we were delighted to be able to return this last year for Celebration 2014.

It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life, to see the gathering, to see the old women cry as canoes came into sight full of young Alaskan natives, and say “I never thought I would see this again in my life”, to watch the exhilaration of the dancers, to feel the energy of the parade and especially – to see the children. To see the pride in marching, in dancing, to see the joy in being able to express who they are and to share that with others. I was moved beyond my ability to express in words; it was a feeling that in one small way, a train of events that had gone very off track had moved incrementally back in the right direction.

Here are some photos from the joyous Celebration of 2014:

 

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October 16, 2014 Posted by | Adventure, Aging, Alaska, Arts & Handicrafts, Bureaucracy, Character, Civility, Community, Cross Cultural, Events, ExPat Life, Generational, Living Conditions, Photos, Quality of Life Issues, Social Issues, Spiritual | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dancers, Costumes, Transmitting Culture at Celebration 2014

I am getting questions about the clans and tribes. I can’t answer your questions. I know there are the Ravens, and the Eagles, and I know they are not hostile but two halves of a whole. I know the raven legend; raven steals the sun – knowledge – and shares it with everyone. He is often shown with a long beak and/or curled around a ball. Eagles have short curved sharp beaks. But, with dispensation, an Eagle may marry a Raven. There are also subgroups, so you can be at once a Raven and a Bear, or a Killer Whale, or maybe a Wolf.

I try to understand, but it is a lot to absorb, and sort of complicated and flexible. As I look at my photos, I can see I was most interested in focusing on the costumes / textiles and less interested in the story. I wish I could tell you more, but you will have to read it for yourselves!

Here is a mural in downtown Juneau that demonstrates some of the artistic traditions of some of the various clans:

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It’s important to remember – this is about them. It’s about holding on to traditional values and core beliefs, and transmitting knowledge of the culture to children and grandchildren. It’s not about us. As I said, we are there to witness and observe and celebrate, but they are there to celebrate who they are. Meanwhile, you can share the experience with these photos:

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The front and center rows were reserved for the elders, and once the dancers started, every seat was filled. There were wet eyes, and open weeping. There were joyful moments, too, when the dancers would invite ‘all the Eagles’ or (something I didn’t understand) to rise and join them in their dance. My own heart swelled to witness their joy.

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June 24, 2014 Posted by | Alaska, Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, Community, Cultural, Exercise, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Public Art, Quality of Life Issues, Travel | , , , , , , | Leave a comment