Kids compete in the watermelon-eating contest at the 131st Founders’ Day in Metlakatla. (KRBD Photo – Liam Niemeyer)

The 131st Founders’ Day in Metlakatla is more than celebrating the founding of Metlakatla Indian Community over a century ago. It’s an event that brings generations of families together.

In one case, that means six generations of family for Melissa Johnson.

“I think what Founders’ Day means to me is sharing it with generations of people. Like my mom will be there. My kid will be there,” Johnson said. “And coming from there, my grandfather lived there. It’s about celebrating Native culture among many generations in Southeast Alaska.”

And a parking lot next to Lower Atkinson Street is where a lot of that celebration took place. People of all ages line up to take part in foot races, three-legged races and a married-women versus single-women tug-of-war.

People line up for the three-legged race during Founders’ Day. (KRBD Photo – Liam Niemeyer)

All this celebration is a way for people in Metlakatla to build bonds and see family from across the country.

But John and Barbara Fawcett, who are the Jitterbug Dance contest champs for the day, remember a different kind of Founders’ Day from decades ago. They’ve lived here since the 1940s.

“They weren’t allowed to dance when we were kids. So it didn’t come back until the 70s. There was only one little group that the ladies started with the little ones,” John Fawcett said.

Fawcett is referring to traditional Tsimshian dancing. 

Later that evening in the longhouse, people wore elaborate headdresses, blankets and masks in all sorts of colors, singing traditional Tsimshian songs while dancing. Blankets have symbols of killer whales, ravens and wolves representing each person’s spiritual clan.

People dance in the community longhouse in Metlakatla. (KRBD Photo – Liam Niemeyer)

“It’s hard for me not to get emotional when I’m dancing, and I’m present as always when I’m dancing,” Mique’l Dangeli, one of the dancers, said. “I have to kind of go send my energy outward to my mom and her generation and those who were older because this wasn’t available to them.”

Dangeli said in past generations, many parts of Tsimshian culture was repressed. She says Founders’ Day provides an opportunity to celebrate a culture they have been able to revitalize.

“We have gone beyond survival mode. We’re way beyond that, where our culture, our practices are thriving. We’re doing all that we can for our language.”

The Tsimshian language, Sm’algya̱x, is a part of the culture Dangeli and others are trying to save. Sarah Booth, one of the last fluent language teachers still alive, was honored in the longhouse.

Founder’s Day isn’t necessarily about memorializing people like Metlakatla’s former leader, Father William Duncan.

It’s about celebrating Tsimshian culture of the past and adding to it in the present.

“Every part about it I really just love because we’re honoring the practices that our ancestors decided that we’re going to celebrate. Every year we’re continuing to have all sorts of ceremonies, and I couldn’t be prouder to be from Metlakatla, Alaska,” Dangeli said.