Kara Briggs
Dei Shu Dance Group performs at Sealaska Heritage Institute's Celebration 2016.

Sealaska Celebration 2016: A Tlingit Dance Group Returns After 30 Years

Kara Briggs

Dei Shu, a Tlingit dance group—recreated from an earlier group that performed at the very first Celebration in 1982—returned in early June to this biennial festival of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian culture with a new generation of dancers.

“I want you to know that I was really proud of these kids,” the group’s elder and teacher Paulina Phillips, 84, told an audience of several hundred people in the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall. “I was glad to see them because I was always worried we wouldn’t have anyone to pass on these songs to.”

The Sealaska Heritage Institute hosts Celebration. This year it attracted 50 dance groups and 2,000 dancers representing nearly every Native village and community in Southeast Alaska. More than 5,000 people attended performances on multiple stages that were also broadcast statewide—with every group, even the comparatively small and young Dei Shu, getting their chance on the main stage in Juneau’s Centennial Hall.

In 1982, the very first Celebration attracted just two hundred people, among them the Tlingit dance group Geisun from Haines, which is 90 miles by ferry northeast of Juneau.

Paulina Phillips and her sister were the song leaders. They, along with other “cherished elders,” danced and sang at that first Celebration, in the deep and old Tlingit traditions. Jackie Pata, Sealaska Corp. director and executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), said they also taught her children and others to sing and dance in the Haines community, including at Chilkoot Culture Camp.

“I love that Paulina is helping that spirit of the old songs and leaders voices to live on in Haines with this new younger group,” Pata said. “It warms my heart to sing the songs with them.”

Jackie Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), danced with the group, and her family were part of the original group in the 1970s and early 1980s. (Photo: Steve Quinn)

Two years ago Harriet Brouilette, tribal administrator for the Chilkoot Indian Association, obtained a grant to restart the dance group. She did it for the young Chilkoot adults like her own sons, who wanted to carry on the songs and dances that they saw the original group perform on video from the 1982 Celebration. Ted Hart, now 30, and his brother James, a 25-year-old Chilkoot tribal council member, had spent months studying the singing, the clothing and the movements—a particular sideways motion of the head, the athleticism in the feet—on the video.

Brouilette turned to Paulina Phillips and her son David to teach this new generation. In the year and a half since the group began dancing again, Phillips has participated in every practice and performance, sometimes using her walker and other times her wheelchair, depending upon how she feels. She has spent time with the young adult dancers as a group and individually, teaching them songs and stories that go with the songs.

This year it became clear to Brouilette that the original name belonged to a clan and could no longer be used. She broke the news to Paulina Phillips, who responded, “What does a name matter as long as we can sing and dance?”

The new group would take dancers from all clans and families, and it would take a new name—Dei Shu, which means “end of the trail,” as in end of the hooligan oil trail, which the Haines area historically was, Ted Hart said.

Today Haines is a growing community with more white residents than Tlingit, even though it is home to Chilkoot Indian Association headquarters.

“Singing the songs that have been sung in our Chilkoot and Chilkat valley throughout history, we are able to assert our unique identity while we preserve the songs from our valley,” said Chilkoot Councilman James Hart.

Despite the group’s deep roots, Dei Shu’s song leader Ted Hart begins every public performance by apologizing for mistakes that they may make because they are still learning the songs and the Tlingit language.

Near the end of every performance, Dei Shu dancers stand still to sing Amazing Grace. They sing the hymn in honor of Paulina Phillips and other of the group’s original members who were part of the Salvation Army. At the recent Celebration, the audience of several hundred people rose to their feet and joined in singing the words first in English. Many also sang in Tlingit.

“To me, it’s not necessarily a new group, but the reemergence of an old and well respected group with Paulina as one of the song leaders,” Pata said. “I know their spirits will guide these dancers with the stories and words of wisdom our songs bring.”

Dei Shu and other dance groups are greatly important, especially those in communities such as Haines with growing non-Native populations, she said. They help remind the communities of their Native roots, while giving Native families with children a place to connect.

“These dance groups are so important,” Pata said, “like the words of the song CH’A AADEI YEI OONA TEE GA-HAA TLEELKW HAS AANEE. ‘It will not be forgotten: our voices on our grandfathers’ land.’ ”

Paulina Phillips, elder and teacher of the Tlingit dance group Dei Shu, with her granddaughter and great-granddaughter. To the right, dancer Jeff David, Haida. (Photo: Kara Briggs)

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