This article is published through our Regional Reporter Program. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Now initiative.
The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers, an Inland Tlingit and Tagish dance group based in Whitehorse, have recently been named the lead dance group for a 2024 festival called Celebration. The group received the honour at this year’s Celebration event, which was held from June 8 to 11 in Juneau, Alaska.
Celebration is a biennial festival organized by Sealaska Heritage and held in Juneau. This celebration of Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida cultures gathers more than 2,000 dancers, as well as thousands of spectators, from southeast Alaska and beyond, every two years. A significant part of the event is the naming of the next Celebration’s lead dance group by Sealaska Heritage’s board of trustees.
The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers attended Celebration for the first time in 2008 and haven’t missed an event since – with the exception of Celebration 2020, which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Themed “Celebrating 10,000 Years of Cultural Survival” and marking Celebration’s 40th anniversary, this summer’s festival was the first in four years.
“I don’t think we really realized while we were in the midst of the pandemic how detrimental it’s been to us to not be able to [dance] on a regular basis as we’ve done before. So being [at Celebration], and to see all our friends and family that we see every second year was just absolutely uplifting and so healing,” said Marilyn Yadułtin Jensen, Dakhká Khwáan’s leader and founder. “We needed this so bad… We absolutely needed to be here.”
Dakhká Khwáan means “People of the Inland” in the Tlingit language. Originally from Carcross, Yukon, Dakhká Khwáan Dancers were founded in 2007. The group started with six members but has grown to include about 30 people as well as a junior group. Having travelled and performed around the world, the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers have become renowned both locally and abroad. They express themselves traditionally through song and dance, with some contemporary influences as well.
Dakhká Khwáan is the first group from the inland – or Dakhká – region to be bestowed the role of lead dance group at Celebration.
“It’s really quite an honourable role and really, really unexpected by us to do that,” said Jensen.
As the lead group for Celebration 2024, Dakhká Khwáan will be responsible for bringing forth an entrance song and an exit song. During the Grand Entrance and the Grand Exit, Dakhká Khwáan will lead all participating groups in a dancing procession across the stage to mark the opening and closing of the festival. For Dakhká Khwáan, this will involve singing and drumming for up to three or four hours straight for both events.
The honour of being the lead group will also allow the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers to spend some time composing new songs and creating choreography. In addition to leading the Grand Entrance and the Grand Exit, Jensen feels determined to make the group’s two individual performances at the festival as meaningful as possible.
“We’re going to have to bring it hardcore,” she said.
The first Celebration festival was held in 1982 and was created by Indigenous Elders to keep the traditions and customs of the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida people alive. The event has grown steadily ever since and is now one of the largest gatherings of Alaska’s Indigenous people. Its mandate is to reclaim, revitalize and, of course, celebrate the culture of the people of the northwest coast.
“It’s really been a vital source of reclamation in the form of dancing and singing and drumming,” said Jensen about the festival.
Looking ahead to the 2024 event, Jensen remembers her mother, Doris McLean, who passed away in 2018. McLean was a respected elder and former chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. She played an instrumental role in the forming of Dakhká Khwáan and in the preservation of First Nations culture.
“She was such an avid supporter of Celebration and she would always be sitting there right in the front row with the elders, really supportive and encouraging,” said Jensen. “And so we want to dedicate us going to Celebration to her, and really remember her for her love and support.”