Sealaska Heritage Institute’s famed Celebration kicked off Wednesday, June 8 in Juneau after four long years and the community is abuzz with the energy of dancers and singers assembling from around Southeast Alaska and beyond.
Celebration began in 1982 as an opportunity to celebrate the cultural survival of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian and to share those cultures with the public. This year’s event will feature more than 1,200 dancers from 28 dance groups and thousands more attendees during the four-day event. Normally held every two years, this is the first time Celebration has been held since 2018 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
SHI was established by Sealaska in 1980 at the urging of our elders, who convened that year to discuss the urgent task of preserving art, languages and traditional practices that were being devastatingly eroded by decades of systemic cultural erasure at the hands of the state and federal government, major religions and the pervasive racism that defined Alaska for far too long.
Since that time, SHI has gone from a small nonprofit arts organization to the dominant force in Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultural preservation.
“Sealaska Heritage has beautifully fulfilled the mission our Elders set forth for us,” said Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott. “Their tenacity, ambition and drive have transformed our region and ensured that our cultural practices remain vibrant. We are so proud of all they have achieved.”
Since inception, Sealaska has contributed more than $35 million to SHI, which is leveraged by SHI to provide matching funds needed for other grants and funding opportunities, magnifying the impact of Sealaska’s contributions substantially. In recent years, Sealaska has increased its annual donations to support the construction of SHI’s Juneau Arts Campus, which is transforming the face of downtown Juneau and stamping it indelibly with the art, languages and icons of our cultures.
In 2021, for example, Sealaska contributed $1.4 million to support SHI’s social and cultural programming. SHI was able to leverage Sealaska funds to win more than $15.8 million in grants from a wide variety of sources, for an impact of 1,157% over Sealaska’s contribution.
Since 1982, the average rate of return on Sealaska’s investment in SHI is more than 282%, but even this impressive figure doesn’t come close to quantifying the value SHI has created in that time. Two examples of the power of their work come from improving the educational success of our Native youth and building pride the youth have in their Native cultures.
“There is no dollar figure that can be placed on preserving the precious words and stories of our ancestors,” Mallott said.
In 2021, SHI employed 53 full- and part-time staff (57% Native), 160 contractors (58% Native) and 230 artists (82% Native). With the opening this year of its Juneau Arts Campus, creation of the totem trail in Juneau and other new work, SHI expects to increase its full- and part-time staff to 80 individuals.
“The investment is modest, but the return is priceless,” said Sealaska board chair Joe Nelson.
“There’s no feeling in the world like participating in Grand Exit in person,” Nelson said.