My Thoughts on Alaska Day 2022

Remember What the Day Commemorates, and Consider If You Really Want to Celebrate It

Given that I am:

  1. a who focuses on the 19th century, and
  2. a proud ,

people might be forgiven for assuming that I would care about Alaska Day, and that I might even celebrate it.

I do not.

Every year, I can’t even remember what day Alaska Day is. (It's October 18th.) Last year I had completely forgotten, and my Alaska Studies students had to remind me what day it was. (Also note that my school district does not care enough about the holiday to give students and staff the day off.)

Throughout my childhood in Ketchikan, in fact, I never remember Alaska Day being commemorated in the community or by anyone I knew in any significant way. No one around me cared about it, so why would I?

Today, I do not care about Alaska Day (except to use it for teaching purposes) primarily for two reasons:

  1. The historical event Alaska Day commemorates is greatly over-emphasized, contributing to a mythology of Alaska history that I and many others have to try very hard to correct.
  2. To the extent that it does represent anything significant, Alaska Day symbolizes a grave historical injustice with impacts we can still see to this day.

This year, however, I have noticed more of my friends and other people I follow on social media posting about Alaska Day. I have not seen anyone specifically refer back to October 18th, 1867 in a positive way, though. It seems like most people are just using the occasion as an excuse to post about their love for Alaska.

If you’d like to use Alaska Day to celebrate Alaska and its amazing communities, that seems great, and I certainly won’t tell you to stop. For me, though, as an educator and historian, I think it’s far more important to remind people not to believe the myths about Alaska history that Alaska Day promotes.

Here are the facts:

  1. The Russian Empire did NOT own or control the vast majority of the lands the Russians called “Russian America,” and their claim to these lands was based on the , a concept that all of us in the 21st century should rightly view as illegitimate. At the time of the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the vast majority of the lands making up “Russian America” continued to be owned and controlled by their original Indigenous inhabitants.
  2. The United States did NOT immediately come to own or control the lands they named “Alaska” as soon as the territorial claims were transferred from Russia to the U.S. on October 18th, 1867. In order to truly control the land, the United States had to use and violence to it and take it from its Indigenous owners. In most areas, those actions took decades, such that many people had no reason to believe their lands were part of something called “Alaska” until many years after 1867.

Some of the things that can hide these sorts of historical realities are the types of historical maps we’re used to seeing. Allow me to illustrate:

typical map of the states and territories of the United States, 1867–1868 ()

The map above, found on Wikipedia, is pretty typical for maps we’re used to seeing: As territorial claims were annexed or purchased by the United States, or they became states, those lands get completely colored in. On this map, (strangely dated to October 11th, even though the transfer of Alaska didn’t happen until the 18th), the Department of Alaska is totally colored in as brown, because it was suddenly believed to be the territory of the United States — according to the U.S. government. Now let’s compare that sort of map we’re used to seeing with a different kind of map below:

map of the Arctic in 1869, displaying a much more accurate picture of how much of Alaska the United States controlled ()

On this map produced by , the mapmaker is attempting to portray something much closer to historical reality: What lands did empires or other governments actually control? Where did loyal subjects and citizens of these countries actually live, and where could their governments actually make their power felt? As you can see, the United States is portrayed in green, and very little of what the U.S. called the Department of Alaska was land where the U.S. government had any power. All the areas shown in white are lands where Indigenous peoples continued to govern their own communities, free from the rule of any outsiders.

Now, there are a few things on the Omniatlas map that I would change, based on what I know about Alaska in 1869: For example, I don’t see why Chichagof and St. Lawrence islands would be colored green, while it would make more sense to color in Wrangell Island and the area around the mouth of the Stikine River, since the U.S. Army maintained Fort Wrangel (yes, it was spelled with one L) there until they abandoned it in 1870. However, when a mapmaker is so committed to portraying history at this level of detail, it’s very understandable they won’t get everything perfect. Omniatlas is an incredible website creating the kind of historical maps that I’ve wanted to see for years. I highly recommend checking them out.

Returning to the problem at hand, myths about Alaska’s history don’t just show up in how it’s portrayed geographically, but they’re also reflected in how we organize it chronologically. Many people believe that Alaska’s history can be neatly divided into a “Russian period” before 1867, and an “American period” afterward. Using 1867 as a historical milepost might seem logical and convenient, but it does real harm to our understanding of the true history of the people who actually lived on the land. Focusing on the Alaska Purchase as THE event that changed Alaska history means we ignore how little the Purchase meant—at least at first—for the vast majority of Indigenous peoples.

In his book , historian Stephen Haycox states, “In a real sense Alaska has two post-contact histories: one of Russian America, the other of American Alaska.” I could not disagree more. Even after the Indigenous peoples of what would be called Alaska made “contact” with outsiders, there continued to be many, many distinct histories of the land and its nations—Unangan history; Sugpiaq, Yup’ik, and Inupiaq histories; Dene histories; and more.

To take one example, interactions with Russians were only a small part of Yup’ik history in the late 1700s and early to mid-1800s. Yup’ik communities continued to practice their own ways of life and experience their own struggles and successes well outside of the control of Russian America. Then, Americans only became a major part of Yup’ik history from the 1880s onward. The United States simply did not have the power or resources to suddenly occupy Yup’ik lands and deny Yup’ik peoples’ independence in 1867. It is incredibly biased to turn those realities around and say that Yup’ik were just one part of the history of Russian America from 1741–1867, and just one part of the history of American Alaska from 1867 to today. Saying so also does a huge disservice to reaching a true understanding of Yup’ik people and their past.

At this point, if you are still reading, you may question why this history still matters. Sure, it may be true that most Alaskans don’t understand what Alaska was really like in 1867, and commemorating Alaska Day may help to hide or mythologize that history. Still, what should that matter to Alaskans in 2022?

Here’s one major reason:

To this day, the U.S. Federal Government’s claim to ownership of over 60% of Alaska’s land is still fundamentally based in the Doctrine of Discovery and the refusal of the U.S. government in the 1867 treaty with Russia to recognize Indigenous sovereignty and ownership of their own homelands.

Some people claim that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 () “extinguished” any other claims Indigenous Alaskans might make to the rest of Alaska’s land. Even if that was true, the fact remains that ANCSA was a law designed to “correct” the Alaska Purchase, and the Alaska Purchase—and, therefore, the idea that Alaska is part of the United States in the first place—was based on the Doctrine of Discovery. If you start to question the Doctrine of Discovery, you may start to question everything you previously believed about who owns America and why.

However, it is clear that ANCSA did not truly settle Indigenous land claims, especially because a number of Native communities were entirely left out of the law: The Native people of Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee, and Haines were excluded from ANCSA for unknown, unjustifiable reasons, meaning that these Native communities were unable to create local “village corporations” that would receive land and money as compensation for the United States taking their lands. At this very moment, these communities for legislation in Congress that would address this injustice. The history of the land still matters, because the land still matters.

You may not be surprised to read that I don’t care very much about holidays. I’d probably forget my own birthday if my wife didn’t remind me. Still, I have to admit that holidays are important. Even if it just means you get a day off from work or can’t get an errand done at a state office, every holiday commemorates something and places value on something—an idea, a date, a historical narrative. We only get so many of them every year, so every holiday counts for something.

from 2017 (the sesquicentennial of the Purchase) describes far better than I could the nature of Alaska Day in Sitka, which is one of the only communities in the state that really celebrates the holiday. It is very much worth considering why different Alaskans would see this holiday in different ways, and why Lingít in Sitka would have sung a mourning song after the transfer was reenacted on Alaska Day in 2017. (I do not know what has happened with the events in the years since then, but anyone from Sitka should inform me in the comments.)

I may keep forgetting what day it’s on, but it’s very much worth remembering what Alaska Day stands for, and considering whether it’s worth celebrating.

Please share your thoughts and any questions you may have by leaving a comment below.

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Peter Stanton

I’m a history teacher writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. Waashdan Ḵwáan. Kichxháanx’ yéi xhat yatee. (American settler in Ketchikan) Tw: @peterstanton