Two years ago, Sitka replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, joining a growing list of state and local governments to make the switch. Now, some locals are trying to move the conversation forward, digging deeper into the meaning of Indigenous Peoples Day and reconsidering the town’s Alaska Day celebration.
On the evening of Indigenous Peoples Day (10-14-19), a large crowd gathers at the Sitka campus of the University of Alaska Southeast. The event draws a diverse group: Native and non-Native, young and old, longtime local residents and seasonal workers. The organizers have lined up a full slate of activities: speeches, dancing, workshops. But first, a potluck dinner.
Sonya Smith is having her meal on a couch in the lobby. A formline artist originally from Kake, she says she’s attending this event with a dose of skepticism.
“See if people are actually serious about what it means, versus just kind of being here,” Smith said. “Also to see if there’s any sort of historical context. That’s always important to me. And the accuracy of history.”
Smith says past Indigenous Peoples Day events have not always met those standards. Looking toward the future, she’d like to see Native groups sponsor events like this one. And, she adds, decolonization should begin with dinner.
“To have our menus right at the top of the list. The name of our tribe means People of the Tides. So a lot of our subsistence way of life comes from sea foods, beach foods. So I personally would like to see more of that,” Smith said.
Nearby, Harry Bradley is waiting in line for the potluck meal. He said he came out tonight to support and recognize the full history of Native culture in Southeast. And, looking ahead to Alaska Day, Bradley says he’d like to see a more honest historical reckoning.
“Well I do think part of that needs to be acknowledging that you know Alaska was sold out from under the Natives without them knowing what the heck was going on when they raised the American flag here,” he said.
There is a group that has been trying to do just that in recent years. They gather below Castle Hill during the re-enactment of the flag transfer to honor Native presence and resistance in Southeast. It’s part of a growing effort to recast the celebration as Reconciliation Day. Bradley says he’s attended that event in the past and plans to again this year.
“Oh I think what they’re doing right now with the ceremony below Castle Hill really sends a message and I think that should continue,” Bradley said. “So they don’t forget what really happened here.”
As the main event gets underway, most people drift upstairs to hear the first speakers. But Evangeline Howard lingers downstairs to finish eating with her sister, her daughter, and a few of her grandchildren. For Howard, that idea of remembering and acknowledging ‘what really happened here’ is personal. It includes, among other events…
“The bombardment that happened in Angoon,” Howard said. “We need to, not celebrate it, but recognize it more and more, the younger generation.”
In October of 1882, the US Navy destroyed most of the village of Angoon. It was not the only time they shelled a Tlingit village. Howard says she remembers hearing the story from the elders when she was still a child.
“It brought all of us of my generation to tears to hear what happened from the elders that were children at the time you know,” she said. “Like my father, his father was there you know.”
Howard brings up another, more recent example, the racism her husband had to deal with when he was a child attending school on Prince of Wales Island.
“They had to eat in the bathroom. The Native kids,” Howard said. “See, my husband’s now an elder. He still reflects back on that and how much it hurt. And never wanting that to happen to his children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren.”
Upstairs, the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi dancers are performing an invitational dance that belongs to the L’uknaxh.ádi Clan. Soon, most of the audience joins in, following the instructions to imitate a raven by holding their arms out to each side and walking with a limp.
The evening continues with more speeches, the screening of a video, and conversation prompts, all aimed at helping people understand the process of colonization and to begin imagining what undoing those damages might look like.
When it’s over, Evangeline Howard says a highlight of the night was watching her grandson perform with the Sheet’ka Kwaan dancers.
“I loved watching him dance it,” Howard said. “I loved it, just feel the pride that I have for him doing it. They tell me, ‘feel your ancestors when you’re dancing.’ You’ll feel it, when you really concentrate on what you’re doing.”
As she gathers her family, Howard adds that she wants her children and grandchildren to take this lesson to heart.