Celebration 2024: Juneau’s Cultural Renaissance in Full Swing

JUNEAU, Alaska (KINY) — The streets of Juneau are alive with the vibrant sights and sounds of Celebration 2024, as thousands of participants and spectators gather for the four-day festival honoring the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. What began in 1982 as a modest dance-and-culture festival organized by the fledgling Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) has blossomed into one of the state’s largest cultural events.

Back in 1982, a couple of hundred Native people converged in Juneau, worried that their ancient songs and dances were fading from memory. Emerging from a long period of cultural oppression by Westerners, they sought to reconnect with their heritage and pass it on to future generations. That initial gathering, called Celebration, sparked a cultural renaissance across the region, inspiring many who were unfamiliar with their heritage to learn their ancestral songs and dances and create regalia for future events.

Today, Celebration is one of Alaska’s largest cultural events, drawing thousands of people to Juneau for the four-day festival. It is the world’s largest gathering of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people, transforming the city into a vibrant hub of Native culture. The biennial event is scheduled for early June in even years, and it is open to all.

Expanding Horizons: New and Returning Events

Celebration has grown significantly since its inception. This year marks the introduction of the Juried Film Festival, a new addition to the festival lineup. From 10 submissions, jurors selected four films to be shown during the event. The winners and their film titles will be announced at 3:30 p.m. today in the clan house at SHI’s Walter Soboleff Building. This event will also include awards for the Juried Art Show and Competition and the Juried Youth Art Exhibit. The films will be screened at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 7, at the Gold Town Theater, located at 171 Shattuck Way, Suite 109, inside the Emporium Mall.

The festival jurors, Ed Littlefield, a Tlingit percussionist, educator, and composer, and Frank Katasse, a Tlingit actor, director, producer, improviser, educator, and playwright, bring a wealth of expertise to the selection process.

Another highlight is the premiere of “Tlingit Macbeth,” originally written by William Shakespeare and translated into Tlingit by Johnny Marks during his tenure at SHI. Directed by Anita Maynard-Losh of Perseverance Theatre, the play was performed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. in 2007. A film crew documented the performance, and SHI recently received a grant to edit the final program, produced by Morgan Howard Productions. The film will debut at 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 6, at Gold Town Theater, merging Shakespeare’s words with the language, music, dancing, and visual design of the region’s first peoples.

Traditional and New Features

The Toddler Regalia Review, a recent addition, is one of the most heartwarming events, featuring the youngest members of the community proudly displaying traditional attire. The Indigenous Fashion Show showcases contemporary interpretations of traditional regalia, demonstrating the evolving nature of Native fashion.

At the Native Artist Market, artisans sell a variety of works, from traditional crafts to modern pieces, providing economic opportunities and fostering cultural exchange. The Native food contests celebrate the culinary traditions of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, offering attendees a taste of authentic Native cuisine.

Celebration not only honors the past but also looks to the future, ensuring the continuation of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures. It has become a powerful symbol of cultural resilience and revival, inspiring other Native communities and organizations to undertake similar initiatives. The event fosters a sense of unity and pride among participants, reinforcing the importance of preserving and perpetuating their cultural heritage.

For four days every other June, Juneau transforms into a cultural haven, with Native people of all ages dressed in the signature regalia of clans from throughout Southeast Alaska and beyond. Traditional songs and dances resonate through the streets, while arts and crafts, Native foods, and the sounds of local Native languages fill the air.

Additional Highlights of Celebration 2024

At Centennial Hall in the Elders’ Room, SHI will set up a photo booth to document Elders attending Celebration. Elders aged 65 and older are welcome to participate, wearing either regalia or street clothes. The images may be used by SHI for educational and cultural purposes, and Elders will receive a copy of their portrait after Celebration.

SHI will also sponsor an Indigenous skin blanket toss, a traditional feature of the Native Youth Olympics, during Celebration 2024. Historically, the blanket toss was used in the Arctic to help hunters see across the horizon to hunt game. Today, it is performed for fun, with participants aiming to stay balanced and not fall over. The event is scheduled for 11:40 a.m. on Thursday, June 6, at the Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus plaza.

SHI President Rosita Worl, Ph.D., will give an orientation on Southeast Alaska Native cultures, providing an overview of the complex cultures and societies of the region’s first peoples. Dr. Worl’s orientation will be accompanied by a viewing of two old Chilkat robes recently acquired by SHI, one believed to be at least 150 years old and the other on loan from the Rahr-West Art Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Economic and Cultural Impact

Celebration is a cultural event and an economic boon for the region. A 2012 study revealed that each Celebration generates an estimated economic impact of $2,000,000, benefiting the local economy and reinforcing the festival’s importance to the community. The event draws about 5,000 people, including more than 2,000 dancers, with thousands more watching online.

As Celebration 2024 continues, it stands as a testament to the vision and determination of those who first gathered in 1982. The festival commemorates the past and paves the way for the future, ensuring that the songs, dances, and traditions of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples will continue to thrive for generations to come.

Where to buy tickets

Celebration tickets can be purchased at Centennial Hall during the event or at the SHI store. Tickets and programs can also be purchased at the front gate of the event.

Four-day pass:

  • General: $35
  • Youth (ages 7-12): $20
  • Elder (ages 65+): $20
  • Children ages 6 and under: Free

Daily admission:

  • General: $20
  • Youth (ages 7-12): $10
  • Elder (ages 65+): $10
  • Children ages 6 and under: Free

In an era where cultural heritage is increasingly recognized for its value, Celebration is an example of how communities can unite to revive, sustain, and celebrate their unique identities. As the festival unfolds, the anticipation and excitement are palpable, promising another unforgettable chapter in Alaska’s ongoing cultural renaissance.