Today marks 48 years since the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam after the Vietnam War, and a Native dance group from Wrangell joined a virtual event to honor veterans of the conflict.
Wrangell’s Johnson-O’Malley Kaats’litaan dancers emerge from behind the decorated cedar curtain at the front of Chief Shakes House, button blanketed backs first.
Arms bent, they sway and step in time with the drums and rattles of their accompanists, the Wolf Troupe.
This is their entrance dance, part of a performance by the Wrangell dancers to honor military service members on March 29 — Vietnam Veterans Day.
Luella Knapp is a council member of Wrangell’s local tribe, the Wrangell Cooperative Association. She said she saw this performance as a way to honor veterans of the Vietnam War who were not given a proper welcome home.
“Today with this ceremony,” Knapp said, “We are given the chance to open our hearts to you — you have always been in our hearts and prayers. We wanted to show you our utmost respect by performing for you today.”
The Vietnam War was a complicated and controversial conflict that lasted from the mid-1950s until 1975. Many veterans felt ostracised and mistreated after returning home to the U.S., and still feel the effects of war to this day.
The Wrangell JOM Kaats’litaan dancers joined other Native groups from around the state and as far away as Standing Rock, North Dakota, in an all-day virtual event recognizing Vietnam vets with Native drumming, song and dance.
The event was organized by the Southeast Intertribal Collective, which describes itself as “a group of tribal people from around Southeast Alaska who are passionate about honoring and holding up […] Veterans of all campaigns.”
As part of their presentation, Wrangell’s dancers performed the welcome song. Women in the group moved their hands in half-circles, palms up, gesturing towards their hearts — welcoming the vets into their hearts.
While the Kaats’litaan dancers often perform Tlingit songs and dances, dance troupe members have come from a variety of Indigenous backgrounds. The name of the dance troupe — Kaats’litaan — means “Old Willow Town,” and refers to the Old Wrangell village site about 15 miles south of present-day Wrangell.
Before their exit, the Kaats’litaan dancers also performed a Tsimshian war cry, which they performed with the permission of Angoon elder Matthew Fred.
Other full performances from the event can be seen at the Southeast Intertribal Collective page on Facebook.
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