Juneau, Alaska in June 2010

June is the right time to come…as the skies are full of every shape and color of cloud while the air is fairly warm; the flowers are abundant–buttercups, berries, cow parsnip and rainforest jungles of moss and lichen covering everything–bark, stone and ground.  There are days of sunshine as well and glaciers, forests–steep and heavily wooded with Sitka Spruce and hemlock–and mountains, snow capped and teeming with waterfalls surrounding  the Gatineau Channel, the inland passage between the mainland and innumerable islands that make up the Southeast area of Alaska.  Juneau…the Alaska State Capital–is a mixed bag–ugly concrete state office buildings, parking garages, and hotels wih a port to huge city-building scaled cruise ships that disgorge thousands onto the town daily and block the harbor views–but Juneau is also a small town still with Victorian buildings in ice cream colors nestled among rhodedendrons and lilacs, fireweed and lupine, small sweet homes up steep streets with the forest out the backdoor.

I arrived here in Juneau just as the biennial CELEBRATION 2010 began.  It was astonishing, moving and brought to life all the photos of native Alaskan regalia that I’d studied and taught in my Art of the Americas class.  It began and concluded with processions through the streets of Juneau with all 52 dance groups, in full regalia, drumming and dancing and singing/chanting their way to Centennial Hall where they were greeted by the 102 year old Elder Walter Soboloff and by many other dignitaries of the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida groups.  Then in two different venues the dance groups performed traditional dances and story songs in beautiful regalia–robes of black and red with button patterns, each individual to their clan–Ravens and Eagles, Dog Salmon and Killer Whale, Frog and Wolf.  Some dances recounted myths–like how Raven stole the Light and gave it to man–; others were love songs; still others reenacted the process of catching salmon with men paddling in circles around people with carved sculptures of salmon bobbing within the circle.  Children as well as Elders were participants in every dance and often the singers and drummers with strong voices and powerful drumbeats were women as well as men.  Three days of performance brought one into an otherworldly awareness of cultures alive and throbbing with life here in Southeast, an area known mostly for totem poles, but an area rich in oratory, dance, song, story and regalia hardly known in the Lower 48.  Indeed Alaska really seems like another country and the native peoples as still another nation…but one in which each clan has its own chief, its own stories, its own regalia, its own identity.  What they all share is the land and its surrounding seas and rivers–rich in salmon and seal, walrus and whale, cedar and berries.  I felt privileged to be among the 5000 who attended Celebration, to be among almost entirely native peoples who were there to express or learn about their own cultural heritage which the Elders were eager to share and invite the assembled attendees to embrace and continue.

From Celebration to Glacier Bay was like moving from New York to China–I flew by bush plane across wilderness mountains and bays to the entirely white homesteaded community of Gustavus and boarded a small squarish former Navy mine runner–the Seawolf– with mahogany trimmed staterooms and a sweeping viewed dining table on the stern.  For six days we chugged slowly though Glacier Bay–mountains and glaciers everywhere–and kayaked amidst icebergs, watched Marjorie Glacier calf, paddled close to two Black Bears who snuffled and clacked their jaws at us to stay away, saw otters with babies on their bellies, seals leaping out of the sea and, at last, Humpback Whales blowing and diving, their tail fins the last sight before disappearance and then an amazing whale who rolled around and then breached, rolled and breached ten times right in front of the Seawolf.  To see a whale hurl its many tons out of the water for a wild breach takes one’s breath away and was the best moment ever of this trip.

Came back to Juneau and met up with a woman I’d met 15 years ago when I was here researching the Arts of the Americas course–Sue Ann Randall– who has lived here more than 30 years, who lived like a homesteader in North Douglas on land without water and electricity, a woman who raised four children in the wilderness and who now is returning to school for a degree in ceramics, a move in her life which she attributes to my inspration–which  makes me feel so grateful. I stayed at the historic 1913 Alaskan Hotel–tres Victorian, not especially well-maintained, once a brothel or a miners’ hotel–there’s a controversy of fact here–but I loved the old furniture, the fact that the place had history and the fact that it is part of historic Juneau, plus that it is in the middle of rip-roaring six bars in a block Juneau of the old days.

Next entry will recount what expires during the National Endowment of the Humanities Summer Institute on Peoples and Cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast and Western Alaskan Cultures of Alaska…….