The Yaaw Tei Yi is a traditional cultural dance group comprised of Alaska Native Indians from many clans. They have traveled across the world to teach others about their lives.
In 2000, Andy Ebona, house leader of the Kiks.adi Clan and now leader of the dance group, was discussing with his mother Amy Nelson and his aunt Mary Miller and sister Andrea Ebona-Michel, the desire to put together a dance group so they could sing more of their own songs from their community located in Sitka, the Kiks.adi Clan.
Nelson, then clan mother of the Tin.aa Hit (Copper Shield House), and now deceased, chose the name Yaaw Tei Yi for the group. It means "herring rock," derived from their Frog Clan of Sitka. The story is told of a woman watching herring swim about her while she sat on a rock in the water near the village.
As well as the frog clan (Kiks.adi), the dance group is comprised of the Coho (L'uknax.'adi), the Eagle (Kaagwantan), the Killerwhale (Naanyaa.aayi), the Killer Whale (Dakl'aweidi) and the Dog Salmon (L'eeneidi).
"Each of the clans utilizes an animal as their crest," Ebona said. "Whether it's the dog salmon, the bear, the frog, the beaver, the eagle or the killer whale. All of those are symbols kind of like a family coat of arms. Each clan is made up of different houses. The Tlingit tribe is broken down into two major clans or moieties; the Eagle and the Raven. Under each of those are sub-clans. Each individual is born into a particular clan."
The 40 dancers range in age from 2 to 86, but only 15 travels. For the privilege of being part of the group, they dutifully participate in practices where they learn the songs and dances.
They must provide their own tribal regalia and help in fundraising efforts. Ebona-Michel, a co-founder, is the lead drummer of three.
Each individual who wants to be part of our dance group have to provide their own regalia," Ebona said.
"That includes moccasins, a blanket or tunic, and some people use headbands, aprons or bibs. You just keep adding these things on as you see fit. Each item as a clan crest on it or something that represents the clan. The headband may have a raven on it. The bib may have a frog on it; the blanket may have the house symbol, in our case, the herring rock. The apron may have the copper shield on it. All these things represent where we come from; our house, our clan, our moiety (the raven).
Although Juneau is home to many of the dance members, they come from all over Southeast and Nome from the Tlingit, Haida and Inupiaq Tribes. There has been no professional training.
"We depend a lot on the elders to help with the songs and dances," Ebona said. "We are especially honored to have our Kiks.adi Clan Leader Ray Wilson, being with us to support us."
Ebona-Michel agreed saying, "We lean on them for a lot of guidance." She said there are four generations dancing in the group now, and past Ms. Tlinget and Haida princesses as well.
"This group has spent a lot of time in the last seven years building ourselves up from a brand new group to where we are today in 2007," Ebona said. "We've done cultural exchanges with the Maories in New Zealand. We spent time in their communities and schools and in their elders' homes sharing our dances and talking about our tribes and art work and relationships. We've done the same in New Mexico in the Zia Pueblo. We've been to the National Museum of the American Indian (Washington D.C.) and performed there. We've been to Hawaii several times, working with the native Hawaiians and performing. Everywhere we go we try to explain about our performances, our songs, our blanket designs and the culture of the Tlingit and Haida people. In bringing along our young people, they learn more and more about the language, the songs and the dances and the traditions so they can share also in the memorial potlatches which are the central focus of our cultural life."
"We try to spend a little time here in the local schools sharing the songs and performances there as well," Ebona said.
"We think it provides the children with identity of oneself and getting to know where your family comes from, thereby building pride in oneself. We think it's very important for an individual to be able to say, 'This is where I come from, this is my clan, this is my name,' all in Tlingit. Belonging to a dance group helps build that pride in oneself."
Ebona-Michel said the children help take care of the regalia as well.
"They see the role modeling of the adults, how they act in public and it's really good training for them," she said. "They learn a lot about presenting themselves in public. They are proud of who they are. I've seen my grandsons really glow when their aunt made them blankets."
She said the boys can be rowdy, but when they put their regalia on, "they're angels." She spoke of a performance for a Seattle daycare facility where just the boys and she and their mother danced.
"They remembered the role of the male in the frog family," she said.
"I was proud of them and they were proud of themselves. They know their story."
Ebona's business connections, including with the National Indian Gaming Association, have produced invitations to perform throughout the world. From the American Indian/Alaska Native Tourism Conference in Portland, Oregon, to the Council of Native Hawaiians Annual Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, various meetings in California, New Mexico, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., and the 2005 World Indigenous Peoples Education Conference, Hamilton, New Zealand.
"New Zealand had to be the biggest deal for all of us. Being there for two and half weeks and sharing with the Maori people was just phenomenal. That visit was superb," Ebona said. The highlight of the trip was visiting the village where the Whale Rider was filmed. There were a number of children who were super excited about seeing these people from Alaska come in their village and visiting."
Ebona-Michel said, "We have travel procedures and protocol on how to act. We rely a lot on our leader to get things together; that's a lot of work."
"I'm the grant writer, the bookkeeper, treasurer, the travel agent and the booking agent," Ebona said.
Their next big excursion overseas will be Australia in 2008. Despite the hard work it takes to get there, Ebona said their future plans are "more of the same."
In March the group is traveling to Phoenix, Arizona, then in July to Florida to a commissioning of a new ship, the USS Mesa Verde. That invite came about because the lady who christened the ship is the wife of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a close friend of Ebona's.
To fund these excursions, they have a Fourth of July booth, raffles, members' airline miles, and some of the places they're invited to pay for the travel themselves.
"We certainly appreciate all of the efforts of everyone and we believe everyone is putting their best foot forward to be a part of this," Ebona said. "When we do well as a group, it really shows."