Metlakatla residents celebrated their town’s 127th birthday on Thursday with the annual Founders’ Day festivities.
In 1887, Anglican missionary William Duncan traveled with a group of Tsimshian people from Metlakatla, British Columbia, to Annette Island in Southeast Alaska. There, they formed the new Metlakatla. It eventually became an Indian Reservation, the only one in the state of Alaska.
Founders’ Day, or 7th of August, as they call it here, started with running. There were 3 and 4 mile races for women and men, and a fun run for kids.
Kelly Bolton’s journey to this community mirrors the one the town is remembering today.
“I was born in Metlakatla, British Columbia, where [the pioneers] came from,” Bolton said. “So it’s an awesome feeling being born in Metlakatla, BC and living here going on 25 years.”
Kelly says the tie between old and new Metlakatla – her two homes — remains strong. Matthew Bergtold is standing at the race finish line with Kelly. He says that the history of Metlakatla is part of normal conversation, not just on August 7th.
“I have five kids and I try to teach them every day what they are, who they are,” he says.
Since the Tsimshian pioneers were separated from family in British Columbia, is the founding of this town looked at as a happy or sad event? Matthew and Kelly say both.
“First and foremost important is the loss of our culture,” Kelly says.
“We’ve spent the past 30, 35 years getting it back on the ground here, and we’ve only scratched the surface,” Matthew says.
“My ancestors came over here from Canada, and it meant freedom to them,” Myranell Bergtold, who was surrounded by six of her grandchildren, said. “Freedom to build and own their own homes. They forgot their culture over there but we’re bringing it back.”
Matthew and Myranell say people here are working to revive their Tsimshian culture through song, dance and language.
Metlakatla Mayor Audrey Hudson says hundreds of people who have moved out of town come back for Founders’ Day each year.
“My favorite part of the Founders’ Day celebration is the parade right when we’re getting to the end and everybody is gathered…and you see so many loved ones that have shown up for this celebration,” Hudson said. “It’s sort of overwhelming to see so many new faces and so many older faces that are here to celebrate for Metlakatla. Not just our past, but we’re celebrating our future also.”
And the parade begins. Veterans and current military members lead the procession. The first three carry the American, Alaska and Metlakatla flags.
“[It’s] something to be proud of,” said Alexandra Lindsey, a young woman from Metlakatla who is home from basic training for the Army National Guard. “‘Cause we built this town from the ground up and it’s just something we should celebrate each year.”
The flag carriers are followed by police and fire trucks, children dressed as Tsimshian pioneers, and dancers wearing native regalia who sing and dance a song written by Metlakatla native David Robert Boxley.
The parade ended along the water, near the float plane dock. Local families set up food and game booths. The lines were especially long for Indian tacos and lumpia.
Kids and adults competed in field events, including a three-legged race, a watermelon eating contest, and tricycle contest. Throughout the day people united with old classmates.
And those who grew up here were reminded of old times. Like Reggie Atkinson, who was holding his baby granddaughter.
“Years ago when this here cannery was going in full production. At the height of the salmon run, and this cannery was going almost 24/7. And [the cannery] would take a break for this day for a few hours, and go right back to work.”
It rained for almost the entire day, until around 3 o’clock, and then it turned into a beautiful sunny afternoon. The festivities ended with Native dancing at the longhouse and fireworks.
This article has been edited to correct an error.