FAIRBANKS — Figuratively and literally, Alaska is a world away from the events that led to the second Monday in October traditionally being Columbus Day.
The tradition of celebrating the voyage which led Christopher Columbus to discovering the “New World” has recently eroded across the United States, and in June, Gov. Bill Walker decided it was time for Alaska to instead recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. The previous two years, Walker signed temporary proclamations to the same effect. At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a day of celebrations on Monday commemorated Indigenous Peoples Day and the Alaska Natives and Native Americans under the banner.
A prayer and land blessing at Troth Yedd’ha Park commenced the day’s events with speakers, films, discussions and song and dance after at the Wood Center.
The ceremony began on a wet and windy hillside with Evon Peter, vice chancellor for Rural, Community and Native Education, encouraging attendees to emulate penguins and huddle for warmth and togetherness. “We won’t have to be here all winter,” he joked.
Excited to honor the land where an indigenous studies center will be housed in the future, “I woke up today feeling full of love and inspiration and grounding,” Peter said before handing the microphone to Anna Frank, an Athabascan elder and an Episcopal priest, the first female Native Alaskan or Native American to ever attain such a status.
Frank’s prayer and land blessing thanked the creator for the ability to use this land and asked for guidance to “teach our children, our grandchildren, about what this Earth is all about.”
Almost immediately after Frank, three Athabascan drummers started a song and dance circle which many attendees enthusiastically joined, even if they didn’t quite know the songs.
For Peter, a blessing on Troth Yedd’ha, which roughly translates to “Potato Ridge,” was the perfect start to honor Alaska Natives and the land where UAF sits for Indigenous Peoples Day. Peter hopes the rededicated holiday will increase people’s awareness and knowledge of Native Alaskans. “Alaska’s 20 indigenous tribes (are) not really known or taught in school,” he said.
Frank agreed, calling Indigenous Peoples Day “very important.” Earlier in the day, she explained to her 8-year-old great-grandson that “yes, there is Columbus, but today is indigenous day, and that means us. Columbus didn’t discover us.”
But for Frank and Peter, any celebration of indigenous people should be married to the land. Frank’s message is that we need to take care of the Earth, not take its sustenance for granted and understand everyone’s ever-lasting connection.
“This is where we’re born, this is where we’re raised, and this is where we’re going to be buried,” she said.
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510.