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