Out of the dark
South of Sacramento, a Native Alaskan dance group uncovers its lost heritage
There are only 500 people left on Earth who hold the key to Jay Silva’s ancestral language, Tlingit. In California, the number is closer to five.
But deep in the San Joaquin River Delta, a spark has ignited a wave of Alaskan Native pride set on keeping the culture alive. Isleton, a town with roughly 800 residents some 2,000 miles away from their clan’s homeland, is the birthplace of the Southern Winds Dance Group.
A chorus of voices and swaying red and black wool capes are the rallying cry for rediscovered Alaskan Native identity in Sacramento’s backyard.
“We’re just a group that’s trying to assimilate our ancestors; what’s left,” said Jay, one of the group’s founders.
But dancing is not only a rich tradition in Tlingit and Haida culture. The songs that accompany it are a way of preserving the fading language.
For the Haida—another of the three clans that dance in the Southern Winds—16 elders are alive who speak the language. Haida doesn’t use written word, so preserving its language—and the winding mythologies and family histories that follow it—comes down to using it.
On a sunny Isleton afternoon in May, about 20 dancers—among a rotating group of 50 members—donned capes hand-sewn with portrayals of thunderbirds, bears, seals and wolves. With the nod of a few wood-woven caps, the group joined in a chorus of Tlingit and Haida lyrics.
After an introduction spoken in Tlinglit, then English, a rush of movement and call-and-response lyrics echoed out throughout the community center where the group showcased its latest songs.
Alongside a line of women who called out lyrics to the singular cadence of handmade drums, the rest of the ensemble swayed and filled the room with a unified energy.
When the group traveled to larger Native American meet-ups, including a powwow in Reno, the Southern Winds Dance Group immediately stood out with its thick woolen regalia and lyrical styles.
“We’re not crow hoppers, we’re not bird hoppers,” Jay said, with a smile.
Instead, the group is bringing a lesser-seen Alaskan style onto the Native American scene, breaking past igloo stereotypes to tell stories of love, bravery and the vivacious family lines that mark themselves by animal names.
In Sacramento County (where Isleton lies at the very southwest tip) the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that only 153 individuals are identified as specifically Alaskan Native out of the county’s 1.4 million residents.
Even though Native Alaskans comprise just a sliver of California’s population, the state has the second largest number of Native Alaskans outside of the Last Frontier. The Census Bureau estimates that 6,400 people of Native Alaskan origin call California home, about 3.6 percent of the total Native Alaskan population.
The Southern Winds dancers made their debut in October 2016. At an annual picnic for Alaskan Natives in the Bay Area—a family barbecue of sorts—Jay half-jokingly tossed around the idea of reconvening for a dance. Two weeks later, a dozen dancers gathered.
Since then, the group had its heart set on returning to Alaska’s lush cedar shores, to the largest dance of all, Celebration, which brings upwards of 20,000 Native Americans back to Juneau. This year, they went.
On the drive into Isleton, the road rides atop of the levees that bank the Sacramento River until it feeds into the Delta.
I wondered how Native Alaskan families came to call this place home, thousands of miles away from their original lands.
As it turned out, a few people were just as perplexed as I was, as the meeting place and location of the day’s festivities just happened to be the midpoint between the Bay Area and Sacramento area cities where the families reside. That, and a family stronghold of Tlingit people lived along a few blocks of town.
Much of that story began when Shirley Silva—the eldest in one family branch—left the dark winters of Alaska for California at age 12.
Now 82, Shirley is a celebrated matriarch of this hub of Tlingit and Haida, sharing songs and wisdom with the dance group.
“My mother was the last tattooed princess,” Shirley said, describing the Tlingit tradition.
When Shirley’s sister was set to marry a Filipino fisherman who worked summers in Alaska and winters in Isleton’s canneries, Shirley and her mother traveled south with them. She recalled that moving to California saved them. It meant leaving the strife and, at times, the drug and alcohol abuse, that came with the north’s never-ending winters.
In their new home in California, her family grew. Marriages connected Portuguese immigrants and Hawaiians to the Alaskan Natives, businesses were started and their Alaskan lives receded into the dark.
“As our children grew, mother never had anything to share,” she said.
That was the old way, as described by several members, where discrimination and stereotypes saturated 20th century perceptions of Native Americans. In 2018, the Southern Winds dancers are reclaiming that heritage, and exploring what the Tlingit or Haida identity means to them.
“A lot of the young people were adopted out or sent to boarding schools,” Jay said. "It wasn’t cool to be native in the '70s … a lot of them didn’t know about their heritage.”
Kellie Bliss, a middle-aged mother from Auburn, recalled that her grandmother, fearing stigma, didn’t detail that she was Native American until the end of her life.
“My dad said he never knew he was native until he was 15,” Bliss said.
Joining the Southern Winds has not only allowed her to further explore her Haida heritage, but share it with the new, extended family she has found within the group. Each lyric she learns is a step toward reclaiming pride and a sense of heritage that had stayed hidden.
While her college-age Sacramento friends might not understand it, Savanna Silva nearly pulled an all-nighter to layer a Tlingit wooden cap that she wore to her graduation from Sacramento State.
“It’s been good for me, ‘cause now I want to get to know the history more … It’s opened more doors, and I want to learn more of the language,” Savanna said.
Each member is in a different place in their journey of exploring their Tlingit or Haida heritage. With a tickled smile, Shirley describes one of the taller men, who she sometimes needs to remind to bend and sway with more ease.
“I think what I have passed on to them is: You know who you are. You know who our people are. Be proud, because I was walking with my head down,” Shirley said.
Celebration, the largest gathering of Alaskan Natives, brought an annual heritage festival to Juneau from June 6 through 9.
And the Southern Winds was chosen this year to take part in that pride.
For Jay, being chosen as one of 45 groups wasn’t just the peak of their journey so far. It was also a test, he said. Fellow Native Alaskans could tell if they’ve mastered the songs of their ancestors correctly.
While Jay approached his elders to receive their blessing to share the lyrics with the group, performing in Alaska meant critiques of their pronunciation and style.
There was no question in Shirley’s mind, however, that Celebration was in their future. Since the group’s inception, Shirley had dreamed of returning to the lush cedar shores of her childhood.
Despite a bit of rheumatoid arthritis, she climbed aboard a plane with hope in her eyes for her new Southern Winds family.
“I’m going home to dance one more time,” Shirley said, before the momentous trip.