Businesses say they feel ambushed and residents are furious with Palmer Chamber of Commerce after ‘Colony Days Festival’ erased from history

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Business owners in Palmer and leaders around Alaska responded with shock and dismay when the Palmer Chamber of Commerce announced its decision last week to ditch the name of the community’s iconic festival, “Colony Days,” and rebrand it the “Braided River Festival.” The chamber also rebranded the Christmas festival from “Colony Christmas” to “Hometown Holidays.”

While the chamber owns the festival, the community also takes ownership of it, as it has been a tradition for over 80 years. The only time the festival hasn’t taken place since 1936 was in 2020, when it was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, a fight is underway in the peaceful farming town over the re-naming of two of its biggest yearly celebrations.

The Palmer Chamber of Commerce has taken a turn toward political correctness, and even opened last year’s Colony Days Festival with a “land acknowledgement.” During that acknowledgement, the president-elect of the chamber, Sam Dingas, acknowledged that the white settlers in the area are an issue with some people, that the name “Colony Days” doesn’t make everyone feel good, and that the land is “unceded territory” of the Ahtna Athabaskan people.

“And we recognize that the word ‘colony’ has hurtful connotations,” Dingas said in 2021, and he then mentioned “braided river,” hinting of the new name to come.

“Not everyone’s experience of the Palmer story is the same,” he said.

In order to create a sameness of experience, the new brand “Braided River Festival” was rolled out last week, surprising the entire community.

The chamber’s first public communication about the negative reaction it received was Friday on Facebook. The message indicated the chamber had been prepared and had budgeted for dissent, but the decision would stand and volunteers are needed to produce the newly named event:

“Yesterday, we made news. Today, we hear you. Tomorrow and beyond, we look forward to your continued engagement with the Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce. To everyone who has called, emailed, posted to social or otherwise reached out, thank you. We appreciate the feedback. Let us clarify a few things to make sure we’re all on the same page. A few things to know: The decision to change the name from Colony Days to The Braided River Festival was voted on and approved by our Board of Directors. It was not an overnight decision. It was thoughtful, and deliberate. Our board is made up of a diverse group of community and chamber members throughout the Palmer area. This event has been managed and coordinated by the GPCC for more than 40 years; it is powered by chamber staff and volunteers. While the event name will change, the many proud traditions that generations of Palmer residents (and beyond) have grown to love will remain the same. We always need many volunteers to pull off this event. Want to get involved? Join the chamber! You would be hard pressed to find a more hardworking, welcoming group of people. The GPCC works to promote a business-friendly environment for our members and the entire Palmer business community. Join us. For more information on the decision to rebrand the event to The Braided River Festival, visit our website,” the Palmer Chamber wrote on Facebook.

Documents showed up online indicating that the Palmer Chamber had set aside $10,000 to help manage the public relations for the name change through June. The talking points were prepared well in advance.

The mitigation plan for the rebranding of Colony Days.

The Chamber took a different tone on Saturday, asking for people to refrain from attacks, which had, by then, gotten ugly:

Greetings community members, Over the last several days, we have learned just how important the name Colony Days is to this community. I write today to provide an update on what the Chamber is doing, considering the incredible amount of feedback we’ve received on the decision to rebrand the Colony Days event. Please know the board is listening to everyone. We apologize for not returning calls, texts, and emails as promptly as we would like, but the amount of correspondence has been overwhelming. Regardless, we are collecting all feedback and will review it as a group on Monday and discuss next steps. We appreciate your passion and dedication to this community. I am confident that all of us, board members included, only want what is best for the community of Palmer. I would ask that as we work to resolve this situation that we do so with compassion and empathy for each other. Some of the comments directed at our members have devolved into ugly personal attacks that are unfair and uncivil, even threatening. Whatever differences we have on this issue, I know we can discuss them in a calm, professional manner that highlights us being friends and neighbors first. Please stay tuned. An update following our Monday meeting will be sent to our members and sponsors, and then we will post that same update here. Thank you for your patience and understanding, Ailis Vann, Executive Director.”

Whimsy, a store in downtown Palmer, started a thread on Facebook:

“The rebranding of Colony Days struck a deep chord in the community. As business owners and chamber members, the news we heard today was a punch to the gut. “We completely understand why the community is so upset over this decision by the chamber board. We found out the chamber secretly and unilaterally made this decision at the same time the community learned of it.

“As business owners, we avoid mixing business with divisive social and political issues. We are very disappointed in the actions taken by the board of the Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce, because it put us in the position of being scapegoated for a poor decision that impacts the economic viability of the Palmer business community.

“The Palmer business community is dedicated to working together to make the special events in Palmer a success, because we love this community.

“We will be responding as chamber members and will also be letting the chamber board know how exactly we feel about this divisive decision,” the store owners wrote.

That post received more than 350 positive reactions from Facebook users, and was shared over 200 times to other accounts. All of the comments supported retaining the name Colony Days in honor of farming settlers.

Peak Boutique was also outspoken in its disapproval:

“Peak Boutique learned about the rebranding of Colony Days at the same time the community did. As a member of the Palmer Chamber of Commerce, I was disheartened to learn the chamber board acted in secrecy with little to no input from the business community and membership. I am dumbfounded the chamber board would make a decision without having the foresight to recognize the political backlash that would fall on the shoulders of a business community with no involvement in the decision. I do not like my politics to be a part of my business. There is a time and a place to be respectful for both. However, the decision by this chamber board backed many of us into a corner. We are now forced to pick up the pieces of a poorly delivered and politically insensitive decision. I feel it necessary to make a statement, because now our businesses are in the crosshairs of the public wrath caused by the board. The social media outrage calling for the boycott of our businesses is concerning. Clearly, this chamber board has little regard for the potentially devastating economic outcomes of this decision.The business community in Palmer is made up of some of the most creative, friendly, supportive and giving people I have ever met. They are not ‘my competition,’ they are my FRIENDS. As we navigate through this, please know that we do not support this rebranding of Palmer’s Colony Days. Many of us will not be silent as we move forward toward a solution.”

And so it went, with no one defending the Palmer Chamber of Commerce, and many making vows to never go to Palmer again and to boycott the businesses there, which then upset the business owners who say they are not at fault for the chamber’s decision, which they didn’t know about.

By Saturday, a Change.org petition was started to pressure the chamber to reverse the decision. More than 6,000 people had signed the petition by Saturday night.

Then, a protest was in the works: On March 28, a “peaceful demonstration” in Palmer is scheduled from 4-6 pm at 550 S. Alaska Street — in the heart of the Palmer business district. Those who have Colony Days branded items are encouraged to bring them and to also make signs.

Meanwhile, people across Alaska started posting criticism of the the public relations roll-out plan, which shows that the chamber has been busy with the decision for many weeks, and budgeted $10,000 for public relations, because it expected fallout.

Sen. Shelley Hughes issued a statement on Saturday, saying she was hearing from constituents that they were angry and felt disrespected by the Palmer Chamber of Commerce, which had not included the public in the rebranding of the festival that honors the farming settlers who came to Palmer in the 1930s and 1040s to try their hand at farming in Alaska.

“My initial reaction when I heard the news of the name change was concern for our community elders who were children of Colonists in the ’30’s and ‘40’s and deserve honor and respect in this stage in their lives. I immediately knew in my gut that local residents would not be happy and that the Palmer Chamber Board would take heat. That seems to have come to pass. The consternation has been quite palpable! I’ve been hearing steady outcries from constituents all the way from Juneau. The most interesting contacts have been from Alaska Native residents and from descendants of the Colonists, all who were furious about the name change. I personally am tired of the “woke” and “cancel” culture and attempts to rewrite history. Since time on earth began, land around the globe has been home to changing people groups. What is important and beautiful about Alaska now is that we are constantly working together to be better at being communities. Let’s stop the guilt game and move forward. Palmer was a trading station in the late 1800’s but it was the agricultural settlement, the Matanuska Colony Project, that made it a vibrant community, the foundation for our charming town today. That Colony history should not and cannot be erased. It is part of who we are. It is part of what makes Palmer, Palmer. Colony Days and Colony Christmas are Palmer through and through. The replacements names, Braided River Festival and Hometown Holidays are homogenous, nonidentifiable titles for events in Anytown, USA. Let’s hope the Palmer Chamber Board* reconsiders its decision**. Whatever happens, my family and I will proudly continue to call them by their proper Colony names as we also continue to value, respect, and love our Alaska Native friends and neighbors,” Hughes wrote.

Alaska gubernatorial candidate Charlie Pierce and his running mate Edie Grunwald issued a statement that criticized the change. They were among the hundreds who wrote on numerous pages on Facebook about their displeasure with the decision to erase a piece of Alaska history.

25 COMMENTS

    • Cancellation followed by a formation of a new organization with local rather than narrow political focus.

      Please consider whether a business posts a display of their membership in what was allowed to become a political organization before opening the door. Certainly that will mean different things to different shoppers and it’s good that choice is still permitted.

      Provided the ability to choose is not prohibited.

  1. “……..Let us clarify a few things to make sure we’re all on the same page………”
    I don’t believe that we’re in the same book, let alone the same page. The Chamber has decided, like so many other entities, to define the present and future by redefining and attempting to eliminate portions of the past. Nobody is trying to eliminate the rich Athabaskan history or traditions of the area. Like the colonists in 1936, our Athabaskan neighbors were and remain free to create their own celebrations centered on their culture, and they can do that in downtown Palmer or in Eklutna, Knik, or Chickaloon. I encourage them to do so, wherever they choose to do it, and I encourage the Chamber to participate with them in the endeavor if invited. People are sick and tired of pirates boarding ships plying smooth seas, rich with laden goods. The pirates need to be thrown overboard, not given the helm.

    • First off The Colonists came to Palmer in 1935. Second you clearly don’t have a clue what you are talking about so how do we ‘get on the same page?” The Chamber is supposed to uphold the history of each city, without Mr. Snodgrass petitioning the government to bring the Colonists to the Mat-Su Valley God only knows how long it would have taken to populate the area. They are the history of Palmer and they paid for their land, it wasn’t given to them for free.

      • “…….The Colonists came to Palmer in 1935. Second you clearly don’t have a clue what you are talking about so how do we ‘get on the same page?”…….”
        They came in 1935 and had their first festival in 1936. Apparently, you didn’t read the article. And that is why we will never make it to the same page; we’re reading different stories.

  2. Who the hell asked these rotten parasites to rewrite history?
    .
    Maybe businesses who feel ambushed and residents who’re furious with Palmer Chamber of Commerce should cancel their Chamber of Commerce memberships and boycott the fake “Braided River Festival.” whatever that fairy tale’s about.
    .
    Was the $10K to manipulate public opinion not simply stolen from C of C members because they wouldn’t have approved spending it in the first place?
    .
    As for “refrain from attacks”, undoubtedly the Wokester Darlings haven’t seen anything yet.
    .
    One hopes what the Wokester Darlings do see is Palmer in their rearview mirrors.

  3. I don’t care how long ago this Chamber came up with plans to erase a strong and compelling identity of our community. They knew it long before those affected by it were allowed in on the plan, like it’s a Done Deal. They think this will just blow over? I appreciate the sense that Palmer is still a small town, no matter how dense the business corridor along the Glenn and Parks highways. It isn’t enough that we are becoming a drive-by for Wasilla residents on their way to Anchorage. They want to erase a cherished identity that honors the sacrifice and determination of many historic families.
    I like the name Braided River. But it isn’t and never will be our Colony Days, nor our Colony Christmas. But please, go ahead–add another festival to our summer/fall lineup. Our summers are short. Our income opportunities are very limited. Adding another event that expands our tourist appeal is a good idea. Don’t try to smash them altogether and rename, rebrand and redefine us and the unique historic events of our town.

  4. Are these Ahtna Athabaskan folks the same people who migrated down the Matanuska Valley , not too long ago and TOOK this “unceded territory” in question from the people who had inhabited this land for thousands of years? Look it up, the Ahtna themselves were “Colonizers”. They, through force sent the original indigenous people of the area packing. Tlingit people did the same thing and were known for rapacious conquest and slave holding over other tribes and even clans within their tribe.
    I am merely making the point that human history is replete of conquest and colonizing. It’s a fact, deal with it, and by the way, while you are at it, encourage the Ahtna people to look up those they treated so harshly and make it right with them.
    Going forward I hope that this kind of collective “Guilt” might somehow end. Let’s walk forward in reason while we seek justice and understanding and find real solutions to problems. Renaming a festival is a cheap and unproductive approach, it only gives relief to a Stupid Person who wishes to signal their virtue, thereby gaining false credibility with other Stupid People.

  5. Fire the entire chamber for starters and make them reimburse the $10,000 to the people of Palmer. Don’t let them walk on this.

  6. Furious is understatement. Just resigning from the chamber is not good enough. These “chamber members” need to identified and ostracized for their forcing their ideals onto the rest of us. They should be known very well and ensure they don’t ever hold public office. What they did reminds me of communist party members doing shady things to further their “struggle”.

    • Blueprint Alaska, GPCC member. Cassie Campbell, Senior Account Executive and former GPCC Board President.

  7. The so called “ceding” is just that so called BS! ANILCA put a hell of a lot of money into the pockets of the Alaska Natives for those lands. They accepted that money and accepted the work of Senator Ted Stevens, Frank Murkiowski and Congressman Don Young. I am seeing this cropping up even in House Committee hearings on the LGBTQRSTWXYZ! This is a national, WHITE Socialist/Marxist/Communist effort to further manipulate “minorities” into further division at the local to national level.
    On top of that, the woman from Chickaloon in that video is part and parcel of this issue. Yet, Chickaloon has NO involvement in Palmer! If they want a “Braided River Day” or whatever that is in their language, knock yourself out!
    I am seeing calls to do both this coming Colony Days. NO! Palmer is and belongs to ALL of Palmer and the Greater Palmer area with that rich history of the colonists! To add Braided River to the Colony Days would be a backing down of this fight against WOKEness and Cancel Culture! We won this round and with the coming Recall we will win that round and toss three hardcore Socialists out of office!

  8. Leftists are really good at infiltrating positions of power, where they sneakily make incremental changes toward their evil goals. And before you know it, things like the erasure of Palmer’s history and culture are implemented! Conservatives need to pay attention to these “behind the scenes” positions and do a little infiltrating ourselves!

  9. I didn’t know someone made Dingas point person for the Ahtna peoples? Sounds to me like he was self appointed. If the Chamber can’t control racist rhetoric in their group maybe its time to remove the current chamber members for the good of everyone.

  10. ‘https://www.blueprintak.com/testimonials

    That’s quite a large team and plan of attack they have there, just to social engineer Palmer (and Alaska), into another Ojai. The chamber of commerce is a global organization.

    Aka ‘woke’.

    Thank you Suzanne Downing for reporting it.

    • I believe the name Wasilla was derived from and meant to honor Chief Wasilla. Chief Wasilla was a Dena’ina.

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