Native American Heritage | Southeast Alaska

Young man and two older women in traditional Southeast Alaska Native American (Haida) dance regalia.

In the United States November is recognized as National Native American Heritage Month, and November 23rd is recognized as Native American Heritage Day.

It is a time to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of Alaska Native and American Indian people.

The U.S. recently celebrated Thanksgiving, which often brings to mind the Native peoples on the Eastern Coast of the country who welcomed the newly-arrived immigrants.

Native Americans from Southeast Alaska

But are you familiar with the Indians from the *other* side of the country – specifically Alaska?

View of Southeast Alaska Native American traditional regalia, as worn by local dance group.

I certainly was not, until my friend Kellie – whose heritage includes the Haida people from Southeast Alaska – invited me to attend a “Homeward Bound” dance presentation by Southern Winds Dance Group a few months ago.

Smiling woman wearing Alaska Native American (Haida) regalia standing in front of cultural information table.

I greatly enjoyed this exhibition of dancing, drumming, singing and sharing of the stories of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples. And I was grateful to be allowed to photograph the event.

Alaskan Native Americans (Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian) singing and dancing in Isleton community room.

I asked Kellie to tell me more about the group, and she happily shared some interesting facts and resources.

Southern Winds Dance Group

 The Southern Winds Dance Group is a collaboration of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Indians with ancestry in Southeast Alaska, now living in the greater Bay Area.

 We share our singing, dancing, drumming, stories, history, kinship, regalia, artwork and food on a regular basis. While the intent is to promote Alaska Native culture to the next generations living in California, people of all nations are welcome. (From the Southern Winds Dance Group website)

Dance leader, in traditional Southeast Alaskan Native American attire.
Jay Silva, Southern Winds Dance Group

Dance leader Jay Silva started Southern Winds Dance Group in October of 2016.

Dancers range in age from 2 years old to 83! Shirley Silva, Jay’s aunt, is the honored eldest dancer. She helps the group understand the meaning as well as the movements of the dances.

Southeast Alaska Native American man presenting rose to seated elderly Native American woman.
Dance leader Jay Silva honoring his aunt Shirley Silva during Homeward Bound performance.

There are currently approximately 20 regular members in the dance group, including a dedicated group of drummers. Everyone in the group learns the words to the songs. They mainly sing Tlingit songs, but are seeking permission to sing more Haida songs as well.

The group meets monthly in Isleton, California to practice. New members are always welcome. Jay tells many stories and is very encouraging to the younger dance members.

Authentic and Beautiful Attire

Each dancer/drummer must commit to coming to practices and is responsible for his/her own regalia.

Southeast Alaska Native American woman drumming and speaking, with tribe members standing behind her.

“Most members are making or gathering their own materials, and regalia-making days are held as often as needed.  We all support one another in creating meaningful, authentic and respectful regalia. We have members who are Tlingit and Haida. Some are also part Tsimshian and Aleut.”

The Dancers’ Regalia

Kellie shared this July 2016 article from Indigenous Tourism BC’s website, entitled “Culture, Not Costumes: Why we say Regalia” as an explanation of why the attire and tools used in the dance are called “regalia” rather than “costumes.”

Southeast Alaska Native American cultural regalia, displayed by dance group.

A dancer’s regalia is not a “costume.”

“A costume denotes dressing as something you are not,” Mike Dangeli of Git Hayetsk First Nation Dancers says.

“All our regalia has our stories and history behind it. And the regalia we use in our dance group, our masks, we have over a hundred songs, and just as many masks, which are tied and attached to the songs. It’s important to share these stories, and to share the importance of the regalia.”

The Dancer: Who and From Where

“When it comes to regalia it indicates who the dancer is and where they come from,” Nelson Leon of Native Thunder Productions says. “You can tell from the resources used… the animals. People of the prairies used buffalo. Here on the coast, we use cedar.

The headdress is a huge indication about the specific nation.”

Dancers also take on aspects from the animals used to make up the regalia, as well, according to Leon.

“The eagle stands for so much in our culture…strength, it flies higher than any other feathered animal… when put on, it is to have that strength and send prayers where they need to go,” he said. “We often see dancers putting on things that share a specific story, like battles or hunting expeditions. It depends on the occasion and style of dance.”

For Future Generations

In the end, it is about making sure the stories, dances and an understanding of the importance of the regalia gets handed down to the next generations, according to Leon.

“We belong to the culture,” he said. “It does not belong to us. When I wear my regalia, I belong to it. I don’t own the drum I use, I look after it, so I can share it and my culture with others.”

Drum, hats and paddles depicting Southeast Alaskan Native American culture.

Past Performances and Future Events

Southern Winds Dance Group has performed in many locations throughout Northern California including: Redding, Danville, San Jose, Rocklin, Oakland, Albany and (of course) Isleton!

In May of 2017 and also 2018 they danced at the Fort Ross Native Alaska Days, which Kellie describes as “an amazing experience!”

At the time of the Homeward Bound performance, the group was raising money to fund a June 2018 trip to Juneau, Alaska, where they were the first Tlingit/Haida dance group from California to dance in the biennial Celebration!

Group of twenty Southeast Alaska Native American dancers in traditional regalia.
Southern Winds Dance Group – May 2018

In addition, they performed in Power Paddle to Pullayup (Washington) in July 2018. This Native American traditional canoe gathering of many tribes takes place annually along the west coast of Washington and Canada.

Young man and his mother standing beside hand-crafted Southeast Alaska Native American cedar canoe paddles.

They will perform at a dinner and gathering in Redding, California on December 8, 2018 to honor Jon Sherwood, a young Haida warrior and professional fighter who recently won the 170 lbs. Welterweight Title.

And in January of 2019 the Southern Winds Dance Group will again perform in Isleton at their crab feed fundraising event.

For More Information

If you are interested in learning more about the Southern Winds Dance Group and the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples, you can visit their website or their Facebook page.

And if you are able to attend one of their performances I encourage you to do so. You will be warmly welcomed!

Published by Jeri Murphy

Traveler, photographer, wedding officiant, blogger. Mother, friend, explorer ... that's just a little about me!

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