Healthy prospects for the return of Celebration

There are plenty of T-shirts, few hotel rooms available (at inflated prices), and an abundance of elated anticipation and stern insistence on obeying COVID-19-related rules as Juneau prepares for its first in-person celebration in four years starting Wednesday.

“I think everything is going according to plan,” Sealaska Heritage chief operating officer Lee Kadinger said Friday. “It always gets a bit frantic as things get closer.”

The biennial Alaska Native Gathering, one of Alaska’s largest cultural events, will mark its 40th anniversary with four days of dancing, workshops, food contests, canoe races and other activities . This year’s theme is “Celebrating 10,000 Years of Cultural Survival”, which organizers say is fitting as the thousands of attendees can finally come together in the wake of the pandemic, which has resulted in a virtually unique event in 2020.

But Kadinger stressed that participating first and foremost means adhering to the “no exceptions” policy requiring face masks and proof of vaccinations at events, although “we understand this may impact people’s participation.”

“It’s for the safety of our children and the safety of our elders,” he said.

Celebration officials are closely monitoring local COVID-19 infection rates, which spiked in early May but have since declined, Kadinger said.

It’s possible that this year’s attendance at Celebration will be lower than the 4,000 people attending in 2018, but there are no firm estimates, he said. But he said he was confident that the number of people attending the event would continue to grow as it had since its inception, thanks to television and online coverage.

“While there may be fewer people attending Celebration, I can say unequivocally that the number of those watching and engaging with Celebration will increase,” Kadinger said. “It’s been like this since 1982.”

360 North’s Celebration webpage ( had 5,041 page views during the live stream in 2018, according to Sealaska spokesperson Kathy Dye.

“That doesn’t include people watching the statewide TV broadcast, which isn’t as easily quantifiable as website traffic,” she added. According to figures provided by KTOO in 2018, around 250,000 people watched 360 North during Celebration in 2014.

This year’s celebration will also be available on the ARCS channel in rural Alaska, according to Dye.

come to town

People who come to Juneau for Celebration, especially those who have known it from previous years, have usually arranged accommodations or other places to stay, agree event planners and local tourism officials. But for travelers arriving without accommodations, whether for Celebration or not, finding a place will likely be a difficult and expensive undertaking between Wednesday and Sunday.

“We’ve been fully booked since 2020,” said Samanda Nauer, a front desk worker at the Driftwood Hotel, one of the lodges closest to Celebration’s main activities. “We just overturned everyone’s reservations.”

Nauer said those who booked in 2020 would be charged the same rates this year. But a search of online booking sites suggests people still looking for accommodation won’t be so lucky.

On Friday afternoon, six locations listed vacancies for the duration of the celebration on travel information website, ranging from $235 a night for a private “alpine suite” to $774 a night at the Silverbow Inn Hotel & Suites. There are far more and cheaper options for the same four-day period the following week, including a (perhaps less fancy) Silverbow Room available for $277.

A search for Airbnb options in Juneau on those dates was a little more encouraging, with nine options available as of noon Friday ranging from a campsite from $76 a night to a “not elegant” one-bed apartment at $150 to a seven-bed cabin for $190 per night which (oops) actually “is located 40 miles north of Juneau in the Taku River and is only accessible by personal boat, seaplane, or helicopter.”

Liz Perry, CEO of Travel Juneau, said all hotels and similar accommodations in Juneau before the pandemic were still operating this summer, but some bed and breakfast owners have chosen to retire or go out of business. She said an event of around 3,500 to 4,000 people — or the number of people who have attended Celebration in the past — essentially fills Juneau’s guest bed capacity, but doesn’t expect many. many visiting participants are without accommodation or other places to stay.

“The dancers, the artists, the other people that come in, they’ve generally gotten things figured out,” she said.

Out-of-town travelers arriving for other reasons during Celebration sometimes found themselves out in the cold, so to speak, but “Juneau being a long-haul destination that happens quite infrequently,” Perry said, as people tend to plan their trips well in advance.

Make art and memories

Among the returning attendees is Jno Didrickson, a former artist from Juneau who moved to Turkey in 2016 but has returned for every celebration since to sell his handmade silver bracelets and other handicrafts in as a seller. He said this year’s preparations and plans during the celebration are no different than since he moved aboard.

“Normally I show up a month or two before and set up as much as I can,” he said while working on bracelets at the downtown Haa Shagoon Indigenous Art Gallery. This year it happened “no kidding, April 1st”.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Enmpire Jno Didrickson, a former resident of Juneau who moved to Turkey in 2016, tells the Tlingit story of the raven and the whale which is depicted in a handcrafted silver bracelet that will be part of the works that he’s offering as a vendor at Celebration next week. He said he continues to return to Celebration after leaving Juneau because he enjoys sharing and hearing new Alaskan Native stories that go beyond familiar themes such as the eagle and the raven that inspire a much of his work.

Didrickson said his interest in Celebration goes beyond just selling his crafts, because “there’s a demand (out there) for community service and that’s what it is.”

“I can collect stories and hear the story, and that’s what keeps me coming back,” he said.

Another participating artist is Wooshkindein Da.áat weaver Lily Hope, who has also written a children’s book titled ‘Celebration’ which will be featured at this year’s event. She won’t be one of the official vendors because ‘I have five kids and nine hours of sitting around and selling art…prevents me from being able to participate’, but she’s running a weaving workshop at his downtown studio on Wednesday and will keep it open the other days of Celebration in the expectation that “a lot of smart people on social media know we’re here.”

Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire Wooshkindein Da.áat Lily Hope works on weaving in her downtown studio on Friday in preparation for Celebration.  She hosts a workshop in her studio when the biennial event begins on Wednesday and is also the author of a children's book titled

Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire Wooshkindein Da.áat Lily Hope works on weaving in her downtown studio on Friday in preparation for Celebration. She is hosting a workshop in her studio when the biennial event begins on Wednesday and is also the author of a children’s book called “Celebration” which will be featured during the week.

“I’ll have Celebration streaming on the big screen TV so we can just weave in and not miss a thing,” she said.

Other celebratory-related products will be in abundance, as official event organizers have begun planning and purchasing processes about a month and a half earlier than usual to ensure that merchandise and other items arrive on time, Kadinger said.

“The T-shirts all arrived yesterday,” he said.

While there may not be as many people at this year’s celebration, organizers ordered the same number of t-shirts as they did in 2018, Kadinger said.

“Maybe it’s not that crowded, but it’s been four years since we’ve had one in person,” he said. “The T-shirt is kind of that memorable iconic item you get every year.”

Ticket sales will begin Monday from 1 to 4 p.m. in the lobby of the Walter Soboleff Building and will continue from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday in Sealaska and Wednesday in Centennial Hall from noon to 9 p.m. required and the wristbands will be placed directly on the people using them at the time of purchase. The festival website states that lost or removed wristbands will need to be redeemed.

The weather forecast calls for rain most days, but Kadinger said organizers are monitoring the marine forecast which so far has called for light winds so outdoor events should not be significantly affected.

“We had a few years where tents were blown up in the street,” he said.

Regardless of rain or shine, or experiencing events in person or virtually, Kadinger said he expects the full spirit of Celebration to shine through for people who experience it.

“The ability to enjoy Celebration is to be wherever you are,” he said.

Contact journalist Mark Sabbatini at [email protected]