Haines resident Paulina Phillips, 83, first became involved in Native dance groups in Juneau, because she wanted to learn more about Tlingit culture.
“I wanted to learn who I was because I didn’t know. My parents never talked to us about our culture. They were trying to get us away from Tlingit culture.”
Phillips said her parents stopped taking part in traditional activities like potlatches.
“Because they said, the missionaries said we were idolaters, worshipping idols — our totem poles, our crests. In fact, there was one village where they burned all their regalia.”
Phillips wanted to learn about here culture, so she looked for a Native dance group. The first one she joined was the Juneau Tlingit Dancers, which her aunt Cecelia Koontz was a traditional leader in. Phillips told her aunt that she was interested in drumming, but her aunt didn’t take a hands-on approach to teaching.
“She wasn’t really teaching me, I just had to watch.”
Then, the day of the performance arrived.
“I hadn’t even learned the songs yet. Our regular drummer, song leader, she quit that day. Cecelia led some of the songs when we were having the program. And we were having a break, and she came over and handed the drum to me.”
“I got up on the stage and ‘oh no.’ I’m supposed to lead these people? I don’t even know the songs. I’m standing there, terrified, I didn’t know what to do.”
After that, Phillips studied the songs and dances so she wouldn’t face another embarrassment. Eventually, she became a song leader. She continued in that role when she moved to Haines and joined the Gei San Dancers.
The Gei San Dancers stopped performing for around 15 years. During that time, Phillips’ son, Stich, says they made a few attempts to get the group active again. Finally, about a year ago, the Gei San Dancers were revived. Phillips took on the role her aunt had taken in that first Juneau dance group — traditional leader.
“The songs are our history, our names are our history. That was our history, when we sang a song.”
This interview was recorded by the Haines and Juneau Public Libraries and produced by Emily Files. StoryCorps is a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives. More information at storycorps.org.
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