Laura Frankson, an Elder from Tikigaq and a resident of the Kotzebue Senior Center, dances with the Northern Lights Dancers. - Shady Grove Oliver

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Legislature approves Indigenous Peoples Day bill

April 21st, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder Print this article   Email this article  

A bill recognizing the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day passed through the legislature this week. It now moves on to Gov. Bill Walker for his signature.

House Bill 78, sponsored by Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kiana) and co-sponsored by 18 other representatives, passed through the Senate on April 16 by a vote of 18-1, with the sole vote against cast by Senate President Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks). It had previously passed through the House on Feb. 3 by a vote of 31-7.

"The outpouring of support for this bill has been heartening for this freshman Inupiaq in the Alaska Legislature. Permanently designating Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska is a small but significant honor to the culture and history of Alaska's First People," wrote Westlake in a release by the House Majority.

He noted the legislation does not seek to replace Columbus Day, which is celebrated on the same day, but rather to have the new holiday exist alongside it.

"We are establishing a day of recognition that honors the intermingling of cultures that makes Alaska such a great place to live," he wrote. "Putting it on Columbus Day exemplifies that we can all come together as one in celebration of Alaska's unique history."

This echoes statements Westlake has made throughout the process of carrying the bill since January. The bill has received vocal support throughout the state and it stands on the governor's own temporary adoption of the holiday over the past two years.

However, from those around Alaska who have not supported the move, much of the discussion has centered on unease over getting rid of Columbus Day altogether, which this bill does not do.

"The thing is it's the inclusiveness," said Westlake before the Senate State Affairs Committee on April 13. "You've all been out there to our communities. There's nothing exclusive about this. The second Monday in October is Columbus Day and we celebrate that, as well. What we want to do is move this forward as the governor's been doing every year ... making this permanent and recognizing how rich and vibrant we are together as the great melting pot in America."

Staffer Elizabeth Rexford, of Utqiaġvik and Fairbanks, presented the bill to the committee on behalf of its sponsors. She said she thinks it's important to adopt Indigenous Peoples Day at the statewide level, rather than just locally, as has been done in Anchorage, for example.

"I think it would be a very positive move forward," Rexford said.

She referred back to her time as a teacher and coach on both the North Slope and in the Interior.

"I've been called on as an expert over about a decade or so to teach on Native games and culture and it's always been an overwhelmingly positive response and we don't have enough of it," she said. "The first reason [to support this bill] is educational because I feel like it would bring a lot of our positive history for discussion and teaching in areas it hasn't been so far. Second, we're always looking for a reason to celebrate, at least on the Slope and the Interior, places I've lived."

Sen. John Coghill (R-North Pole) said he appreciated the way Westlake and his co-sponsors approached the bill this time around. Similar bills have failed in years past. He specifically referred to the letters received as testimony in support of the bill, which have been sent this year and in the past by both organizations and individuals.

"I can tell you some of these support letters caused me some concern and a lot of it was because they said, 'We're going to replace Columbus Day.' And, though [Columbus Day] might be perceived [as] negative by some, it's [perceived as] positive by others, myself included," Coghill said. "So, this is the place where the different focuses in life get to work together, but the letters of support, quite often, were actually dividing us. Just to let you know, that's going to be part of the discussion. As we go through it, in this, we've had all kinds of culturally-sensitive issues and we want to be alert to that, but ... I just appreciate your approach on the idea that we like to celebrate."

He continued by saying, "Sometimes the cultures clash, there's no doubt about that, but they're all the same people, so that means we've got to figure out how to make it happen and I think this is probably a good approach to that."

Rexford responded by saying she'd noticed that some of the previous years' letters of support had somewhat of a "negative undertone," but noted she'd reached out to various organizations since then to explain the inclusiveness aspect of the bill. Since then, she said, "it did change the tone a little bit" and said she'd had "nothing but positive responses from the other letter writers."

"I think what you've done is you've allowed the conversation to take on a new look and I think that's totally important because if it landed in our schools as something ... [that] became a cultural clash part instead of some way to celebrate both because one brings benefits like the other does, I mean, it's just a fact [sic]," said Coghill.

Support for Indigenous Peoples Day and similar holidays and recognitions has grown over the last decade across the country. Vermont now celebrates the holiday on the second Monday in October, as do cities like Seattle, Phoenix, Denver, and Minneapolis.

South Dakota has celebrated the country's Native people and cultures on the same day for many years.

While some communities have brought the new day of recognition up alongside the old holiday, others have made a point of re-focusing the discussion and the teaching of history.

As NPR reported last October, Lakota activist Bill Means spoke with Minnesota Public Radio in 2014, after Minneapolis adopted the new day.

"We discovered Columbus, lost on our shores, sick, destitute, and wrapped in rags. We nourished him to health, and the rest is history," Means said at the time. "He represents the mascot of American colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. And so it is time that we change a myth of history."

How that history is recognized and discussed has been central to the debate over whether or not to formally adopt Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska, as well.

In public testimony before Senate State Affairs, this came to a head following a comment by Fairbanks resident Marilyn Russell.

"I'm white," she said. "I just want to let you know that I am totally in favor of House Bill 78. There are so many wrongs in our state that need to be righted, let this be one of them. I'm certainly not Elizabeth Peratrovich, but she demanded changes to recognize indigenous people and kudos to her. In the same way, I say let's show real honor and respect for people who have been here in Alaska for thousands of years. Indigenous people and culture make this state culturally rich and diversified and let's rename that second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day."

Sen. Coghill responded:

"I think we just heard an explanation of why it's going to have to be approached very clearly because there's a difference between joining and replacing," Coghill said. "I think that's going to have to be a conversation all along the way. I think joining is great and replacing is not so great. So, that's kind of the question we're going to have to continually deal with over and over and over again."

The only other comment came from Shishmaref resident Albert Ningeulook, who said he very much supported the bill.

"I want to let each one of you know in the committee that this particular bill would really point out the fact that not only were the original inhabitants like my own people, the Inupiaq, will be observed, and also there will be positive recognition of different ethnic or cultural people that have settled here in our state [sic]," he said. "To me, this is a very positive step in recognizing all these people that have settled in our state so far. I'm really grateful that we live in a country where we can start to celebrate and honor our different cultural heritages in our state."

His words were echoed early this week by the bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) following its passage through the legislature.

"I think it's fitting that Indigenous Peoples Day passed on this bright, sunny Easter Sunday in Juneau," said Edgmon in a release. "It fills me with optimism that the Legislature has taken this step in the name of inclusiveness for all Alaskans and our state's diverse cultures."

House Bill 78 will now go before the governor for his signature.

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at


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