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Metlakatla celebrates Founders’ Day: Parade, games, food featured
Tsmaay 4th Generation Tsimshian dancer Myranell Bergtold beats a drum and dances. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

All who boarded a chartered catamaran and braved the dense fog from Ketchikan to Annette Island on Wednesday were welcomed to a cultural and communal experience at an Alaska Native community’s annual celebration, which has evolved from a hot dog luncheon outside a cannery to a full on festival with ceremonies, races, dance group performances, contests, prizes, vendors, and a parade, where in addition to candy, the procession tossed home-made fry bread delicately wrapped in a baggie.

This year’s Founders’ Day celebrated Metlakatla’s 132 years as a community on Annette Island, and 128 years as part of the Annette Island Reserve, but some of the island’s residents simply like to calculate Metlakatla’s age by how old it was when they were born there.

Outside Leask’s Market during the morning parade, Metlakatla resident Arlene Henry watched the procession make its final turn onto Western Avenue and approach her position. She wore a cedar bark hat and a gold bangle embossed with an Alaska Native adaptation.  The dance group towards the middle grew louder and louder with song by every pivot in their step. Henry readied her phone for photo album art and said “Metlakatla was 66 years old by the time I was born, and now I’m 66.”

The parade passed and Henry took photos of every float. She waved at all who noticed. When a dance group came near, Henry approached closer either for a photo or a hello. The fog began to break as the final floats passed, and her smile just shined on.

“I come here every year. I live here. I don’t participate in regalia dances, but I have a big love when I hear it and see it ‘cause our pioneers sacrificed everything to come over,” sighed Henry. “I just get choked up. I’m so happy, it makes me happy.

“I was working at the cannery for 45 years and this is the first time I get to see everything,” she continued. “No one paid me to come down and watch. I had to work, but I’ve enjoyed it” said Henry grinning.

Founders’ Day has gained momentum from previous years and this year, for the one day, Metlakatla’s population of 1,495 about doubles in size. Organizers anticipated the growing attendance by adding more spaces for vendors, which now total 26. But, according to Executive Tribal Secretary Judi Eaton, expanding commerce wasn’t their biggest challenge this year.

“It's really hard to get volunteers. Because before, it was mostly all run by volunteers, but now my office does all the fundraising and scheduling, said Eaton. She then expressed her gratitude for the U.S. Coast Guard base Ketchikan, as well as several families from Ketchikan, that were there volunteering.

Eaton described what she remembered of Founders’ Day as a child. It started as a luncheon at the Annette Island Packing Company.

“When the whistle blew at 12 o’clock,” Eaton said, “then they got served a hot dog, chips and soda. Then when the whistle blew again, they all went back to work and that was it.”

She explained how one year one of the Fourth of July celebrations was rained out, and the event was moved to Founders’ Day. She added, “From there it just kind of stuck.”

This year’s celebration travel arrangements worried Eaton, and she faced a difficult dilemma with the Alaska Marine Highway System strike. Then she made the decision to charter four round trips with Allen Marine Tours with a schedule spread out through the entire day.

“With the strike we were kind of worried, so we chartered Allen Marine to bring visitors in, because they were calling me and asking if we were going to do a charter,” Eaton said.

Some of the passengers on the catamaran were returning back to Metlakatla for just the day, because it’s the place they call home. Shayne Guthrie moved from Metlakatla, where she was born and raised, to Ketchikan. With the option of the chartered boats, she was able to maintain a tradition and attend another Founders’ Day, where she competed in a tug-of-war match.

There were three categories in this years tug of war event. Fishermen battled a group of servicemen from the U.S. Coast Guard Base Ketchikan, single men took on married men, and the single ladies skirmished with the married.

Guthrie was at the front of the group, where the pulls from the opposing team are the most violent. When the referee said go, she and her fellow single ladies dug in.

Both teams seemed to have no advantage over the other. Both were coordinated, but skidding and stumbling from the opposing team’s pull. After Guthrie’s team took one step back, the momentum only multiplied until the whistle sounded.

The competition ended, but both teams took about a minute to untangle and collect themselves. For a moment, it wasn’t apparent if all the participants knew whether they had won or lost, because they gave it so much. Guthrie was winded, but overwhelmed with bliss, because she was back home and celebrating her place.

“I’m pretty broken right now cause it was pretty tough,” said Guthrie. “You really need to work together and get your counts right.

“If you’re not together as a complete team, you’re gonna lose it right away,” she said while she watched the last teams finish and slowly crawl away.  

Guthrie’s favorite part of the celebration was the history that inspired the event. She described a trip that she took back in 2013, when she was apart of a group that canoed from Metlakatla, British Columbia to Metlakatla, Alaska to recreate “those footsteps that we made in the past as a tribe. I was 15; it was empowering.

“It makes me feel great to see all these people come here and celebrate with our community,” she continued. “It really means a lot.  I normally work a lot so I haven't been able to celebrate like this in a while, so it really feels like home.

Guthrie also ran in the foot races, but competed in flip flops, so she didn’t do so well.

In addition to foot races and tug-of-war matches, both kids and adults participated in a watermelon-eating contest and a jitterbug dance competition. A balloon pop contest was only for the younger kids, but a parent was required to help their own child balance on the balloon. A display of fireworks has always ended the Founders’ Day Celebration, but a conflict with the barge company prevented a shipment. Instead, the celebration ended with a performance by the Tsmaay 4th Generation Dancers.

People who visited Founders’ Day on Wednesday were entertained by the games, food and performances. In addition to the experience, they left with an introduction of what Founders’ Day is and who the Alaska Natives in Metlakatla are.

To the people of Metlakatla, Alaska Founders’ Day  is a day of remembrance; a day of remembering their heritage, the families they belong to and where they come from.