In Sitka, Indigenous Peoples’ Day a prelude to broader ‘reconciliation’

Although Indigenous Peoples Day (October 14) has been formally recognized in both the State of Alaska and in Sitka (by 2017 proclamation), “Reconciliation Day” remains a grassroots effort to bring a more nuanced perspective to Alaska Day, which is celebrated only four days later on October 18. (Photo by Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

As many Sitkans gear up to celebrate the 152nd anniversary of the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States on Oct. 18, others are working on reframing the holiday to include the idea of “decolonization.”

Events at Sitka campus of the University of Alaska on Indigenous Peoples’ Day were intended to move the conversation forward.

This was the scene two years ago, on the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Transfer: A large group of Sitka residents gathered at the base of Castle Hill to sing the Eagle Sorrowing Song, while on top of the hill, another group of Sitkans dressed in 19th Century period costume, fire salutes while the flag of Tsarist Russia is lowered and the US flag is raised.

“The thing is, is in our town here there’s a long history, ” said Lakota Harden, who works in Health Promotion for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. “This land was never ceded or surrendered. The history — with Alaska Day coming up — that there was this sale. Well, it was an illegal sale!

Harden’s indignation is not unique among Alaska’s indigenous peoples. “You can’t sell something that isn’t really yours. There’s controversy around that, but that is the history.”

SEARHC is one of a large group of partners , including Sitkans Against Family Violence, Sitka Counseling, the Sitka Health Summit, and the University of Alaska who are trying to engage in work around “decolonization,” and more fully recognize that Alaska’s history — while worth celebrating — is more complicated than it’s traditionally rendered — especially during the Alaska Day Festival.

This move toward reconciliation gained momentum in 2017, when the Sitka Health Summit adopted it as one of their goals for the year.

This effort is not unique to Sitka. Indigenous Peoples’ Day has replaced Columbus Day in many jurisdictions. Harden was there at the beginning.

“I was living in Berkeley, living in the Bay Area when the very first Indigenous People’s Day was proclaimed by the City of Berkeley back in 1992,” Harden said. “And it was because of the reenactments of Columbus and his ships, and the big Italian population in the city would have these parades, and they were planning to reenact the three ships. And of course, we weren’t having it. And that was how it began.”

Taking a cue from Indigenous Peoples’ Day, there are many who are beginning to describe “Alaska Day” as “Reconciliation Day.” But Michael Mausbach, with the University of Alaska, says that there’s much more to this partnership than a single day in October.

“The lens that we’re trying to view this through is this idea that the past is something that is not necessarily your fault, if you are a part of the settler-colonial culture,” Mausbach said. “But it is something you’re responsible for. And so, in moving forward with this work, we hope to unpack what it means to engage in decolonial work, and make sure that’s something we carry forward into every day.”

Indigenous Peoples Day was recognized in Sitka on Oct. 14 with a series of discussions, dances, meals, and free admission to the Sheldon Jackson Museum — with the objective of moving toward a deeper understanding what’s truly worth celebrating.

“And so one of the goals is to come together as a community and understand some of the language around these issues,” said Mausbach. “Understand what it means to engage in decolonial work, understand issues like historical trauma, and unpack some of these relationships, and then use that knowledge to — as a community — come together and move forward into more consistent programming around these topics.”

Mausbach says there are plans to create a “decolonial task force” so Sitkans can continue to discuss these issues, long after the Russian flag has come down over Castle Hill on Oct. 18.

Erin Fulton contributed to this story.