Today is our day. Alaska Day celebrates the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States 151 years ago on Castle Hill in Sitka. It’s a state holiday but for most of the state it is little more than a day off for state workers. The post office and federal offices are open, most places still have school and if you asked most Alaskans why we celebrate Alaska Day only a few could give you the correct answer. Many think it is Statehood day. Nobody celebrates Alaska Day better than Sitka.
The centerpiece of the celebration is a ball where people dress in either 1867 finery or Native regalia. The 9th Army band performs in schools and other venues, the Seattle Firefighters Pipe and Drum Corps is all over town. No one knows why or how a bagpipe band became an essential part of Alaska Day but it wouldn’t be Alaska Day without them going from bar to bar, playing in the fire hall and schools and leading Sitka’s firefighters who always end the parade.
And it is the parade that brings everyone out. Every civic group, school group, several churches, the Coast Guard, National Guard, and many local businesses march in in front of the whole town. “Keystone Kops” flounce around in feather boas “arresting,” “fining” and kissing citizens along the parade route. And with elections less than three weeks away there are lots of politicians. But we are polite and even cheer them.
Along the parade route different church and civic groups peddle food. The Catholics have a chili cook off, chili served with deep fried Oreos. Orthodox sell fry bread, salad and fish pie, the Lutherans sell fruit pie with that most Lutheran of sacraments, coffee. The Historical Society has a brisket cook off along with a brew and brat fest. Sitka Pioneers serve tea, and Brave Heart Volunteers sell chowder. I’m sure I’ve missed someone. Near the end of the festivities the Coast Guard puts on a water rescue display. (You can see pictures of the Coast Guard rescue demonstrations here.)
But everything is not celebratory. The Native Community points out that “sovereignty” was transferred between Russia and America when sovereignty wan not Russia’s to sell. Native Alaskans had no say in the transfer. While Alexander Baranof was no great friend of Native Alaskans, neither were the early Americans who suppressed language and culture and took Native Alaska kids from their families to send them to boarding schools. At the foot of Noow Tlein, what most of Sitka calls Castle Hill, members of the Native Community hold a mourning ceremony, to mourn the loss of culture and language. This ceremony is at the same time as the reenactment pageant being held on the top of the hill where the Russian flag is lowered and the America flag raised with brass bands playing and firearms saluting. The pageant ends first and members of the brass band carrying Sousaphones can’t get down the trail because we are there. The organizers of the mourning ceremony are asking to have Alaska Day rebranded as Reconciliation Day changing it from a transfer celebration in Sitka to a statewide reflection on what happens when one culture tries to assimilate another. This is the second year for this ceremony. Suzi and I have attended both years. And we attend the Alaska Day celebrations. I am happy Alaska is American and I love a good party, but I recognize the rights and concerns of the first Alaskans. (You can see pictures of the Mourning Ceremony by clicking here.)
These are pictures from the Alaska Day Parade. There are three tranches of photos. In past years I have been more selective but many people asked “why isn’t my group, kid or spouse, in these pictures?” So this year I was less selective and more inclusive. You can see more pictures by clicking here and here. I also have another post of non-parade pictures.