Alaska tribes gather together to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day

Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson speaks at an Indigenous Peoples Day celebration at Alaska Pacific University. (Photo courtesy of Governor Bill Walkers office.)

Today is Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska, and there are gatherings across the state commemorating and celebrating Alaska Native people.

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In Anchorage, Alaska Pacific University held a celebration with food, dancing and cultural activities. Among the speakers at the event were Governor Bill Walker, Anchorage mayor Ethan Berkowitz and state health commissioner Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson. Davidson says it gives her immense pride to see Native people from around the state celebrating their culture and heritage.

“As a Yup’ik person, I think every day is a great day to be Indigenous,” Davidson said. “But on days like today, Indigenous Peoples Day, when we all come together to really celebrate who we ultimately are as people, it’s an especially great day to be Indigenous.”

Recently, Governor Walker issued an order recognizing the danger that Alaska Native languages are in. By some estimates, many Native languages could be extinct by the year 2100. The order works to increase partnerships between government and tribal organizations, integrate Native languages into schools and update public signs to include both English and Indigenous names. Davidson says these steps help preserve Native culture.

“When our children know who they are, when they speak their language and their culture is ingrained in their everyday life, that builds resiliency in children,” Davidson said. “And we have much better outcomes for our children and families when we know exactly who we are as people.”

Several speakers touched on the high rates of violence against Native women, including the recent murder of ten-year-old Ashley Johnson Barr in Kotzebue. In her remarks, Davidson spoke of her own experiences with abuse as a child. She says the high rates of violence against Native women creates a negative stigma about village life.

Despite the sometimes tough subject matter, the overall tone of the celebration was optimistic, complete with food and tribal dancing. Celebrations were also held at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Ashley Johnson-Barr was ten years old, not seven.