It was the recent, steady climb in coronavirus infections statewide that burst the Alaska Day Festival’s bubble this year. “At 4th of July time I was much more hopeful that the pandemic would have been more controlled than it has been to date,” said Elaine Strelow, who’s been helping organize the festival for 54 years, “and that we wouldn’t be reverting in many cases.” (KCAW photo/Emily Kwong)

Update August 4, 2020: Since the publication of this story, KCAW News has learned that although the Alaska Day Festival has been cancelled, the appearance by the Seattle Firefighters Pipes and Drums may still happen — both in October, and again later in February. A final decision on travel by the group will not be made until September. KCAW News apologizes for the premature report of the group’s cancellation.

Original Report:

The 2020 Alaska Day Festival in Sitka has been cancelled.

Although the October holiday is more than two months away, festival organizers are discouraged by the steady increase in coronavirus infections in the state, and decided it was best to stand down for this year.

Alaska Day is just a day off in many parts of the state, but in Sitka it’s like Bastille Day and the Fourth of July had a baby. And that baby grew up to play bagpipes.

Alaska Day Festival ambience

This has been happening in Sitka since 1949 — 71 years. Military bands, formal balls, a parade, political candidates, flyovers — the works. And Elaine Strelow has been there much of that time.

“I happen to go back to 1966,” she said, “with a few years leave, off and on.”

Like many other communities, Sitka scaled down its July 4 celebration this year to a few widely-spaced food booths behind the Elks Club, and an 11:30 P.M. fireworks show. But with fishing season in full swing and many people out earning a living on the water, July 4 has always felt like a dress rehearsal for Alaska Day.

“At 4th of July time I was much more hopeful that the pandemic would have been more controlled than it has been to date,” said Strelow, “and that we wouldn’t be reverting in many cases.”

It did not take long for Strelow’s optimism to turn to frustration, however. Alaska’s low infection rate last spring was a model for other states. Now that’s flipped, and some models show us with among the highest per-capita transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

Strelow and her fellow organizers are unhappy about this fact, but they feel they are acting in the best interest of everyone to cancel the festival this year.

“Oh you can only begin to imagine how sad I have been about that,” said Strelow. “If you’ve got to keep six feet apart and wear masks — we just couldn’t see how we could make it happen.”

Paulette Moreno on Castle Hill (Emily Russell/KCAW Photo)
ANS Grand President Paulette Moreno’s solitary stand during the festival’s “transfer ceremony reenactment” in 2016 prompted a community-wide dialog about decolonization, and a move to rebrand the holiday as “Reconciliation Day.” (Emily Russell/KCAW Photo)

The year off may have one upside: It could give some breathing room for renewed conversation about the Alaska Day Festival, and what it represents. An active dialog about decolonization has emerged around the holiday, along with a concurrent Mourning Ceremony to acknowledge the suffering and loss of indigenous people at the hands of colonizing powers.

Strelow herself trying to find a balance that reflects the community, but recognizes how the historic events of Alaska Day reshaped modern world empires.

“We may have various differences in the community — different perspectives,” said Strelow, “and I think most of us in the Alaska Day organization have tried to be respectful of other perspectives, and tried to provide opportunities for people to express those, so that we might better understand.”

Strelow and the other festival organizers are confident that the event will be back in October 2021. In the meantime, we’ll just have to suffer an entire year without bagpipes.

The annual appearance of the Seattle Firefighters Pipes and Drums at Sitka’s Alaska Day Festival sets the tone for the entire week. In this 2017 photo, Pipers included Hilton Almond, Dirk Halliwill, Mark Colley, Luke Schultz, Daniel Wade, Craig Warren, and Mike Mihata. Drum major Tyson DePoe has tenor drummers Smokey Simpson and Brandon Freeland, joined by side drummer Jason Lynch. Bass drummer is Gib Mastri. (Karla James/KCAW photo)