A rising tide of indigenous opposition to the Alaska State holiday known as Alaska Day is simmering in some factions of the Native community. How will it get expressed this year during the day that honors a significant event between two sovereign nations — Russia and America?
Some say they want the day known as “DeColonize Alaska Day,” or “Truth and Reconciliation Day” in recognition of the first various inhabitants of the land, and the somewhat dubious transfer of a deed that didn’t include the people who got here first.
Tribes and bands of people lived in the vast Alaska region before Vitus Bering, the Danish explorer in the Russian Navy, caught his first glimpse of the land known to the Aleuts as “Alyeska.”
The Russians claimed the territory, and the U.S. purchased it from Russia in 1867. It was first a district, then a territory. Statehood came on Jan. 3, 1959. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But Alaska Day marks the official transfer of the deed from the Russians, and there are plenty of Natives who don’t think that purchase was legal then, nor should that deed be honored now. Essentially, it’s a public statement that challenges the U.S. title to the land.
That’s made for uncomfortable interactions in Sitka, where the official transfer took place, and where Alaska Day is celebrated with gusto every year, with bagpipe bands, beer festivals, dances, tours, a reenactment ceremony, and a parade. It’s a week-long festival that draws hordes of visitors to town during the off-tourism season.
Since 2017, a group of local Tlingits and supporters have staged a counter-event to protest the colonization of Alaska. This year, letters to the editor in the local newspaper are once again raising the awareness that the official State of Alaska holiday is a day when some Alaskans mourn the uninvited colonists, stampeders, missionaries, oil drillers, and the history of Statehood itself.
It’s unclear what exactly the protesters want besides renaming the day, or if they’ll once again carry signs, and pound drums to express their displeasure with what is a high holy day in Sitka. Some have discussed the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” as occurred during the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.
This year’s celebration theme is “Frontier First Responders.” Thursday, visitors coming to Sitka by air will be greeted at the airport by people in 1860s period costumes. Along with history exhibits and interpretive tours around town, there’s the Alaska Ball starting at 7 pm in Harrigan Hall, with more period costumes and a performance by the New Archangels Dancers, a 50-year-old dance troupe that celebrates Russian folk dance.
Friday features an underground tour of St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, Russian Bishop’s House open house, a beer festival, Pioneers Home open house, and the parade at 2:30 pm. More events continue on Saturday, concluding with a variety show in the evening.
Will Native protesters dampen the celebrations? Perhaps, or perhaps not. The new Indigenous Peoples Day, which was Monday — same day as Columbus Day — may take the sting out of the wound that some Natives feel about Alaska Day festivities.