“Our masks are solid connections with our past,” Boxley says. “If you look in natural history museums all over the world, they are chock-full of every kind of mask you see us using.
Boxley then noted a previous performance at the Smithsonian in New York City where there was also an exhibit of masks and other regalia. “We were able to tell the school groups who were watching us, ‘Go to that exhibit and look. This is a living culture. It’s not just in a case on a shelf.’ They could see us using them. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Boxley entertains, educates, and empowers a packed house in Centennial Hall. Sometimes it’s done with a single, indelible message to people fixed on each word.
During a recent performance, Boxley once told the crowd: “A long, long time ago, our people were strong. Our culture was strong. We had a closer tie with nature than we do now. Something happened, though. Strangers came and said what’s yours is no longer yours, and you can never be the way you were before. That was a pretty awful and sad time for our people. It’s not that way anymore. All of us are celebrating our culture and who we are.”
Boxley, who has helped Price learn the Tsimshian language known as Sm’algyax, paused briefly. Then he continued.
“Please, folks. Learn our languages. It’s what makes us who we are. All of us are salmon eaters. All of us are people of the water. But it’s the languages that sets us aside and makes us beautiful.”
Celebration ends on the fourth day, but the memories remain vivid. Photos are exchanged, posted on social media sites, and preserved for several months after the final dance. Discussion about the next gathering, which takes place in 2018, begins with thoughts of new songs to complement those still preserved.
“I’ve got ideas already,” Davidson says. “It all derives from stories. When I was relearning songs from my grandparents, a lot of the philosophies were foreign to me. I realized it was up to my generation to give meaning to these songs. It’s almost like a relay. Every generation is adapting to a whole new way of thinking. Learning our ancient songs gives me a foundation to expand on and create new songs.”
Steve Quinn is a Juneau-based, freelance journalist who has written about Alaska Native culture for nearly 10 years. In 2011, his work received recognition for best magazine feature from the the Alaska Press Club.