Southeast Alaska’s Tlingit culture doesn’t stop at the Canadian border. Tribal members also live in British Columbia to the east and the Yukon to the north. An Inland Tlingit group from up the Taku River, which empties into the ocean near Juneau, has strong connections to Alaska.
Dance Leader Wayne Carlick calls more than 30 people to the Celebration 2016 main stage.
They’re children, adults and elders clad in button blankets, beaded vests and carved and woven hats. Some wear Chilkat blankets, others wolf hides.
Taku Ḵwáan, or Taku People Dancers, came to Celebration from Atlin, British Columbia, about 90 miles northeast of Juneau.
Carlick said it started around 10 years ago when young people began asking about their culture. Before this group, there was another, the Children of the Creator.
“That dance group actually inspired our parents to join the dance group and eventually we became the Taku Ḵwáan Dancers. Our children were always a part of it and they’re the ones who actually started us getting busy and make our regalia and do all this stuff for our people,” he said.
It was a cultural revival, not unlike recent decades’ resurgence on this side of the border.
Both share some history. As in Alaska, Canada’s government-funded residential schools practiced what many call “aggressive assimilation.” The aim was to destroy traditions.
“Nobody really danced for a long time because we didn’t know about our culture,” Carlick said.
“There were elders who were silent because of the schools that we went to. And to try to break through all that and say, ‘This is who we are. Nothing’s going to get in the way of it, because no matter what they do to us, we are here, now,'” he said.
The Taku people have close ties to the Juneau area.
Louise Gordon is spokesperson for Taku River Tlingit First Nation.
“It happened over a period of time. We actually migrated from the Taku down to Douglas Island, where the food was,” she said.
She said some of the Taku Ḵwáan Dancers performing at Celebration are from Douglas or Juneau.
“That’s why the wolves are part of our dance group because they were originally … people from the Taku River. But they decided to stay in Juneau and we decided to move inland. So the Celebration gives us an opportunity of reconnecting with our families” she said.
Gordon credited Carlick for the dance group’s size and success.
The former residential school student was given carving tools by elders in the 1990s. Carlick took those to Vancouver, B.C., where he studied, practiced and became a master carver.
“He actually came back into the community and inspired the whole community. He’s actually had something to do with each and every one of our blankets. And I was witness to see him make 40 drums in one month. That’s more than one a day,” she said.
Carlick said he did it by involving the community.
“It’s the same thing about learning about our regalia, learning about the spiritual part and our connection to it. I think it’s all part of it. The drum is part of it. The shoes we wear, the clothing we wear, all become part of who we are. It’s almost like or second skin,” he said.
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Inland Tlingits have their own regional cultural gathering every other year. The next Hà Kus Teyea will be held in 2017 in Teslin, in the Yukon, another Tlingit population center.
Carlick said such events help maintain traditions.
“This is our Olympics. This is the biggest of the dances, the biggest of the groups and the best groups in the world are here at Celebration,” he said.
Three other Canadian dance groups performed during this month’s Celebration. Two were from Whitehorse, the Yukon’s capital city, and one was from Surrey, near Vancouver.