Alaska Day

The Two Best Investments Ever Made by the United States--Alaska's Purchase and Government Built Railroad; 1867-1915; The Alaska Citizen; Fairbanks, Alaska, Monday Morning, October 18, 1915

How does one acknowledge Alaska Day, a federal holiday to commemorate the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States?

The holiday traditionally celebrated the westward expansion of the United States as an extension of Manifest Destiny. For many, it is a day fraught with the unexplored legacy of colonialism, of sacred land loss, and of the intentional erasure of Alaska natives from the history of their land.

Historic Alaska newspapers celebrated the holiday as a reminder of the United States as a world power, particularly in the context of events during the First World War. Articles from this time period emphasized the patriotic obligation Alaska residents in schools owe the then-territory:

Observance of Alaska Day by Schools Urged: Broad Significance Attached to Observance of Anniversary of Transfer. Alaska Day, which is October 18, should have a broad and deep significance to every Alaskan, declares the Alaska School Bulletin for October. "The observance of the day should inspire its every man and woman, every boy and girl, a love and loyalty to this great Northland and to the nation of which we are a part," it declares. The Bulletin is issued monthly from the office of the Territorial Commissioner of Education and goes to every school in Alaska. Commenting on Alaska Day, it says: Alaska Day, October 18th., marks the fifty-fourth anniversary of the transfer of what is now the Territory of Alaska from Russia to the United States. This vast Empire containing approximately 600,000 square miles of territory was purchased for $7,200,000, representing less than two cents per acre. The total mineral production of Alaska from the date of purchase to the year 1920 was more than sixty times the purchase price. The fisheries during the last decade alone have yielded more than forty times the amount of the purchase price. There is every reason to believe that neither of those great industries has reached the peak of production. The coal and oil fields are practically unexplored. Those who know state that the coal fields of the Matanuska and Nenana River valleys are more than equal in extant to the original coal fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Timber for use in the paper and pulp industry is being utilized for the first time in the history of the Territory. Billions of cords of such wood are situated at points which are readily accessible to present or possible mill sites. William H. Seward certainly caused Uncle Sam to sow seed which was destined to bring forth many an hundred fold when he urged and consummated the purchase of Alaska.
From the October 12, 1921 issue of the Alaska daily empire.

“The observance of the day should inspire in every man and woman, every boy and girl, a love and loyalty to this great Northland and to the nation of which we are a part”

Patriotic sentiment aside, these articles also point to the economic output of the Alaskan territory, to imply that the raw materials of timber, gold, and seafood help boost the United State’s gross domestic product. The sheer bounty of resources “discovered” and turned a profit by white settlers to the territory.

In a statement from the above article that would prove fortuitous:

“The coal and oil fields are practically unexplored. Those who know state that the coal fields of the Matanuska and Nenana River valleys are more than equal in extant to the original coal fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.”

(Crude oil reserves from Prudhoe Bay that would not be tapped until 1968, and the profits from oil drilling would remain front and center of the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) in 1980).

Alaska Day is to be Celebrated on Thursday, the 18th: The Seward public school will celebrate Alaska Day, October 18, which is next Thursday. Miss Wallace, principal, announced today that she had received telegraphic instructions from Commissioner of Education L. D. Henderson, who requested that all school superintendents, principals and teachers pay special attention this year to Alaska Day. Commissioner of Education Henderson suggested that the teachers secure speakers to outline, the full meaning, in the light of history, of the transferring of Alaska from Russia to the United States, what it means to the residents of the Territory to be a part of the United States, what America's mission is in the world and what part each of us must take in a super-union democracy. On next Thursday afternoon at 2:30 o'clock the pupils of the high and grammar school will assemble in the high school rooms. Judge W. H. Whittlesey will make the address of the afternoon and patriotic songs will be given by the students. The actual transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States took place at Sitka on October 18, 1867. At that time the flag of the Czar of Russia was lowered and the American flag was raised. The United States was represented by General Rousseau of the regular army at the ceremony.
From the October 13, 1917 issue of the Seward gateway.

Other articles used the abundance of territorial profit as a bargaining chip to help fund mail services among other amenities:

This is the Birthday of Territory of Alaska: Alaska, As Possession of the United States, is 48 Years Old Today-- Fairbanks Has More Than Paid For It and Its Entire Case and Yet Cannot Get a Mail Service
From the October 18, 1915 issue of the Alaska citizen.

Newspapers used the holiday to instill patriotism in its citizens (Alaska Natives would not be recognized as United States citizens until 1924) by celebrating Alaska’s economic contributions and its territorial shortcomings. Virtually none of the Alaska Day coverage in historic newspapers dealt with Alaska Natives, and deliberately so, based on their second-class status. While the annual Alaska Day Festival in Sitka celebrates October 18th in a traditional manner, with parades, costumes, dances, and pageantry, many groups are confronting this legacy in light of the holiday that, ostensibly, signifies stolen land transfer.

While the people of Alaska have a day off in honor of Alaska Day, it is important to reflect on the history of the holiday, of the generational pain and trauma caused by forceful removal from sacred land, and of the resiliency of Alaska Native tribes throughout the state.

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