There’s a growing effort in Sitka to rebrand Alaska Day as “Reconciliation Day,” and to transform this festive — and much-loved — historical pageant into a more honest reflection of Alaska’s colonial past, and to heal wounds still felt by the region’s indigenous people. But recognizing Reconciliation Day is still literally an uphill battle.
As musket fire heralds the raising of the American flag atop Castle Hill during Sitka’s Alaska Day Festival on October 18, at the base of the hill a different ceremony mourns the loss of Tlingit land and grieves for lives lost in the conflict over colonization and settlement.
This is the third year that a Mourning Ceremony has been held at the base of Castle Hill during the reenactment of the Alaska Transfer, but there is a different tone this year. The Mourning Ceremony has become associated with a movement to rename October 18th “Reconciliation Day.” The idea is to acknowledge the harms of colonization and to honor Native people and culture, rather than to continue celebrating the sale of stolen land from one colonial power to another.
The seed for the Mourning Ceremony was planted in 2016 when Paulette Moreno carried a hand-painted sign up the hill to the transfer reenactment. It read, “Gunalchéesh, Sheet’ka Kwaan for your care of Tlingit Aani for time immemorial.” Moreno, who is also the Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, reminded those gathered at the ceremony today that the reaction to her sign was swift and unequivocal.
“And they said, ‘You have no right to be here and interrupt our show. You have no right to be here.’ It was one of the hardest moments of my life,” Moreno said.
Moreno said the backlash was so strong that she feared for her safety and moved away from Sitka.
Many more people have also joined Moreno since then, and today’s ceremony draws over 100 people, both Native and non-Native.
Mt. Edgecumbe High School Social Studies teacher Dionne Brady-Howard also spoke at the event, arguing that the effects of colonization are not limited to the past. She says the forced assimilation of Alaska Natives, along with harsh punishments for speaking their languages and other forms of violence, caused deep pain that has not gone away.
“All of those acts led to a degree of generational trauma that took the form of depression, substance abuse, suicide, and tragedies in our communities,” Brady-Howard said.
And, she adds, a lot of that trauma began with the transfer of the Alaska Territory from Russia to the US. That’s why Howard and many others gathered today are opposed to the ceremony.
“It’s a reenactment of the one event that marked the beginning of forced assimilation and cultural genocide at the hands of western schools and churches,” she said.
In past years, the Mourning Ceremony has remained at the base of the hill. But, this year — as the transfer re-enactment comes to a close — Moreno leads a procession to the small grassy park on top.
Before it was called Castle Hill, this place was known to the Kiks.ádi as Noow Tlein, or Big Fort. It was home to several clan houses, including the Point House.
Louise Brady is from the Point House clan. She is also one of the organizers of today’s ceremony, and says it was powerful to see everyone up on the hill.
“It was awesome, to see so many people here, it was awesome,” Brady said. “To hear all of the love and support from people who understand how this is healing, it helps to heal that generational trauma that we’ve experienced since contact.”
Moreno echoes that healing sentiment, stressing the significance of bringing everyone up the hill.
“It felt like medicine on wounds,” Moreno said. “It felt like plants from this area that you would harvest when you have a wound and would rub the ointment from the plants into the wound so it can begin to repair itself.”
A petition is circulated among the attendees at the ceremony, to bring an end to the reenactment. Looking toward the future, Moreno says she envisions a new holiday, under a new name, one that …
“Will be inclusive, will be fair, will honor cultures from every walk of this world, every place in this universe, but most of all, will have the respect deserved by the Sheet’ka Kwaan,” Moreno said.
For now, though, the sun is breaking through the clouds and the ceremony becomes a celebration as Brady encourages everyone to dance.
“Gunalchéesh!” Brady said. “Let’s have some fun up here on our homeland.”