Alaskans celebrate first official Indigenous People’s Day

Alaska takes a step toward acknowledging Alaska’s first people with bill authorizing holiday Oct. 9

By JOE NELSON
for the UAS Whalesong
On Oct. 9, Alaska celebrated the first official Indigenous People’s Day as authorized by the State Legislature when it approved House Bill 78 during the last legislative session.
I believe that this law was a long time in coming.
It is about time that our political establishment acknowledge Alaska’s first people.
The prime sponsor of the bill was Representative Dean Westlake from Kotzebue. In his sponsor statement Representative Westlake said, “Federally, the second Monday in October is Columbus Day. In our Alaskan context it is fitting that this day should also honor the first people of our state and of the Americas”
Westlake acknowledged a number of Alaska Native leaders by name and reminded us that “Alaska Native people have … worked within the legal system to establish a better and more just state for all Alaskans.” He also recognized a number of culture bearers, philosophers, teachers, and scholars, including Nora Marks Dauenhauer.
Representative Westlake said that he considers Indigenous People’s Day as, “A great day of reclamation for us Natives as a whole. We are the old world, combined with the new. Welcome to our Indigenous celebration.”
According to the National Congress of American Indians, there are 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States, 229 of those are in Alaska. The idea that a European sailor ‘discovered America’ is patently offensive. The Christopher Columbus story line is fake news.
Juneau Representative and UAS Alumni Justin Parish and co-sponsor of Bill 78 believes the holiday offers an equilibrium since the story of the Americas is often told from 1492 to the present.
“It is often told to minimize the experiences and contributions of Native Americans. Indigenous People’s Day helps balance our history and celebrates our heritage,” he said.
Speaker of the House Representative Bryce Edgemond from Dillingham, who also supported the bill, has always known a culturally diverse environment growing up in an Alaskan Native household.
“I am proud of my heritage and equally welcoming of all others who choose to make the great state of Alaska their home. The legislation creating Indigenous Day in Alaska was a long time in coming and I’m very pleased it is now officially in law,” Edgemond said.
As an Alaska Native lawyer-educator who was born and raised in rural Alaska, I have a responsibility to help shed a little light on our reality. The fact is, the Russians never set foot in the entirety of the state, much less owned it. On October 18, some will celebrate Alaska Day and the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase.
As we take note of these markers in time, some of us will also be taking stock in our future. As a parent of three, I am hopeful that my kids will grow up not just comfortable in their Native skin, but empowered by their history and culture.

Picture: Claire Helgeson and Brianna Riley help cut ginger for deer stew that was enjoyed at the Food Soverignty event on Oct. 9 for Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Photo by Managing Editor Erin Laughlin.

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