A Kake elder in red and black regalia adorned with silver buttons approached the microphone at the podium to introduce Kake’s Ke ex’ Kwaan Dancers in the midst of the Native Village of Eyak’s 25th annual Sobriety Celebration.
During their introduction, Ruth Demmert announced that she would be stepping down as dance group leader after 40 years.
“Tonight, I won’t drum as loudly anymore,” she said, passing the role to younger members in the group.
To Demmert’s surprise, the audience rose from their seats to applaud thunderously.
Soon the sound of their drums and singing echoed through the gymnasium.
Dance groups from Kake, Juneau, Yakutat, Tatitlek, Cordova and Kodiak performed during the weekend of Nov. 8-11, while speakers delivered messages of strength, sobriety and Native pride.
“One of the things that I struggle with going to college is they talk about my people as if we are people in a book, as if we’re not here anymore, as if the regalia that I have on me right now is just some piece of cloth,” said guest speaker Brandon Johnson, who is Tlingit from Yakutat. “To me it is my grandparents, my great grandparents … to think that I did this alone is preposterous.”
Johnson, of the Raven Clan, and four years sober, spoke passionately about how unity helped him throughout his sobriety.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my mom,” he said, as he held back tears. “I was proud of who I was because it was one year sober, two years sober … my mom would be proud of me.”
Johnson is preparing to welcome a daughter this spring who will be named after his mother.
“… I’m going to tell her who she is and where she comes from. I’m gonna weave that basket for her until she knows how to weave it herself,” he said.
“We are all tied together,” Johnson said. “I say we are all weavers. This is what we do. This is how we live. This is how we survive. This is why I can say I’m proud to be Tlingit. This is why I can say I am proud to be from Yakutat, but most of all, I’m proud to be from Alaska.”
Johnson, currently a Juneau resident, met with elders, performed and also spoke about issues facing Alaska Natives during the weekend.
“I’m not proud to be a felon, but you know what, when the state of Alaska has an incarceration rate of Natives three to one … they cast us away and we’re at a point where there’s more of us than you think,” he said.
“Why did it feel normal in there?” he asked the audience of his time incarcerated.
“It’s because there’s that disconnect, that disconnect with the people and I’m here to make that connection. I’m here to say you’re not going to forget about us. I’m here to say we are you, you are us.”
Keynote speaker Gene Tagaban, who is Tlingit, Cherokee and Filipino, spoke of the power of ancestors.
During the Trail of Tears in 1838, the United States government forced the relocation of thousands of Native Americans in the southeast U.S. from their ancestral homelands, and 4,000 Cherokee people died.
“I try to think about my ancestors that walked that trail,” he said. “You see, I believe that they did everything they could … to live, to make it, to survive, for me … you see, your ancestors did everything in their existence to live and to survive for you. And I owe it to them.”
Numerous speakers approached the podium, sharing stories and moments of triumph in their journey of sobriety.
A sobriety countdown, beginning at 50 years, ended the night.
Off to the side, Walter Alexander Soboleff Jr. anxiously rocked side-to-side, getting the young dancers who lined the wall next to him excited.
When his turn came, Soboleff threw both hands into the air and made his way to the podium to receive his sobriety token for being clean and sober for 33 years.
He joined the growing line behind the podium and hugged Della Cheney who celebrated 35 years of sobriety.
“It’s gotten a lot bigger,” NVE Sobriety Celebration coordinator Belen Cook said of the event. “We have more dance groups … more speakers … more participation, but especially this year, it seemed like it had a very special energy or touch to it.”
Jewelry, blankets and paintings were sold during the arts and crafts and food fair at the Cordova Jr./Sr. High School on Nov. 10.
Cook, the event coordinator for the past 15 years, starts preparing for it in January.
“My favorite part is seeing people come together and celebrate sobriety, support the people that are in sobriety and the group effort …,” she said.
About 25 NVE staff helped at the event along numerous community volunteers.
The traditional subsistence potlatch featured a variety of seafood, including Dungeness and king crab, Sitka spot shrimp and razor and steamer clams, purchased by NVE. Moose was also offered at the potlatch, catered by Chris Belgarde, thanks to a subsistence permit for the village.