October 18th marks the 151st anniversary of Alaska Day. The day is a legal holiday in the U.S. state of Alaska, observing the anniversary of the formal transfer of the Territory of Alaska from Russia to the United States, which occurred on Friday, October 18, 1867.
On that day in 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire for the sum of $7.2 million dollars.
In Alaska, celebrants perform an annual reenactment of the Alaska Purchase Transfer in which the Russians formally handed over the land to the U.S. The is celebrated here in grand style; reenactors dress up in 1860’s European costumes and attend the Alaska Day ball. Reenactors also greet passengers at the airport and the day is celebrated with a big parade with floats and marching bands.
In Alaska, celebrants perform an annual reenactment of the Alaska Purchase Transfer in which the Russians formally handed over the land to the U.S. Photo: Mary Pember
Few residents, however, say much about the colonization by the Russians and subsequent rule by the U.S. that ushered in generations of land loss and cultural genocide for the Tlingit people.
At least, until recently.
In 2016, a Tlingit woman carried a small sign at the transfer reenactment ceremony that read, “Gunalchéesh Sheet’ka Kwaan, Your care of Tlingit Aani for time immemorial.” Alaska Day greeters asked the woman to leave, describing her sign and presence as threatening.
In 2017, the Tlingit were invited to the ceremony for the first time in the history of the Alaska Day celebrations. Several members of the community, dressed in their regalia, quietly joined the celebration atop Castle Hill, the former site of the Russian’s fort.
A group of non-Native allies also carried large signs declaring the message, “ Gunalchéesh Sheet’ka Kwaan, for your care of Tlingit Aani for time immemorial.” Although onlookers in the crowd appeared visibly uncomfortable with the signage; the ceremony continued, and the sign holders were allowed to stay.
Allies carry sign that reads “Gunalchéesh Sheet’ka Kwaan for your care of Tlingit Aani for time immemorial,’ during the cession reenactment ceremony last year
When the U.S. Army-Alaska honor guards fired their rifles signaling the moment of cession, however, the sound of voices of Tlingit people gathered at the bottom of the hill rose to the hilltop. They were singing a mourning song.
In 2018, in addition to the proposed mourning ceremony during this year’s Alaska Day celebrations, the Herring Rock Water Protectors, an alliance of Native and non-Native community members concerned about indigenous rights, are proposing that Alaska Day be renamed Reconciliation Day. They have issued a resolution asking for the name change.
The resolution calls for the state of Alaska to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the goal of promoting healing, educating, listening, and the preparation of a report with recommendations for the State and city of Sitka.
Here is the resolution:
BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF ALASKA:
Whereas, the historic record clearly demonstrates that Alaska Native peoples have occupied this land for thousands of years
Whereas, the historic record further demonstrates that “ownership” of Alaska was never transferred from Alaska Native peoples to the colonial Russian government.
Whereas, the historic record further demonstrates that the transfer of sovereignty between Russia and America was not accomplished with appropriate agreement by or even consultation with the rightful stewards of the land.
Whereas, the historic record further demonstrates that Russian and American colonialism and the resulting systemic oppression and discrimination of Alaska Native worldviews, epistemologies, and ways of life has caused severe disruption and trauma for Alaska Native people.
Whereas, the “Alaska Day” transfer ceremony represents a celebration of colonialism by commemorating these wrongs through the re-enactment of a segregated event akin to what the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 later disavowed.
Whereas, the Presbyterian church has issued an apology “to those who were and are part of ‘stolen generations’ during the Indian-assimilation movement, namely former students of Indian boarding schools, their families, and their communities”. Many international entities and state governments have issued similar apologies.
Be it resolved that “Alaska Day” and the transfer ceremony in Sitka be renamed to Reconciliation Day. This day will be used as a thoughtful occasions for inclusive cultural awareness, historic reconciliation, and consideration of reparations.
Further resolved the State of Alaska, and specifically the city of Sitka establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the goal of promoting healing, educating, listening, and the preparation of a report with recommendations for the State of Alaska, and the city of Sitka.
For more information, visit the Herring Rock Water Protector’s Facebook page.