Alaska and Indigenous Peoples Day

four adults and two children standing outside as one man holds out a paper
Governor Bill Walker holding a signed copy of HB 78 in Utqiagvik, Alaska in 2017. The bill designated the second Monday in October "Indigenous Peoples Day."

Office of the Governor Collection, Alaska State Archives, ASA_A1_RG348_SR612_0206_GOAVID03_HB78-Signing-Nalukataq_Utqiagvik7

By Erik Johnson, Denali Historian

In 2015, Alaska Governor Bill Walker signed a declaration making the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day. At the time, Alaska became just the second state (after South Dakota) to honor Indigenous people in place of a date traditionally used to recognize Christopher Columbus.[1]

In his proclamation, Walker stated: “Alaska is built upon the homelands and communities of the Indigenous Peoples of this region, without whom the building of the state would not be possible.” He went on to say: “The State opposes systematic racism toward Indigenous Peoples of Alaska or any Alaskans of any origin and promotes policies and practices that reflect the experiences of Indigenous Peoples, ensure greater access and opportunity, and honor our nation’s indigenous roots, history.”[2]

The Denali region is home to the Upper Kuskokwim, Koyukon, Lower Tanana, Ahtna, and Dena'ina peoples, and has been since well before the United States and National Park Service started managing the nearly 6 million acres now known as Denali National Park and Preserve. Alaska has 40 percent (229 of 574) of the federally recognized tribes in the country.
newspaper article titled columns honored on discovery day, fourteen states declared legal holiday in honor of his feat
This headline was featured in the October 13, 1911 edition of the Fairbanks Daily Times.
The Columbus Day holiday was becoming more popular in the beginning of the 20th Century. Italian immigrants came to America in large numbers at the end of the 19th century and lobbied to have the Genoese explorer recognized (In 1907, Colorado was the first state to have a Columbus Day due to the efforts of Italian-American Angelo Noce). Columbus was an important figure for Italians and Catholics who faced discrimination in America at that time. Columbus Day was designated a national holiday by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934.

Although Alaska does not recognize Columbus Day, it remains one of the federal government's ten designated holidays. In recent years, numerous cities and states have replaced the Columbus holiday in favor of a recognition of Native Americans as more Americans reckon with the legacy of Christopher Columbus.[3]

Alaskans also reckon with other explorers and colonists who directly affected and disrupted indigenous lives throughout Alaska and the Pacific. In 2020, Indigenous Peoples Day/Columbus Day falls on October 12th—the date associated with Christopher Columbus's sighting of the Americas from his ship.[4]

[1] In 2015 and 2016, Walker signed yearly declarations. In 2017, he made the designation permanent. The designation is ceremonial and state workers do not get the day off. State workers do get a holiday for Alaska Day in mid-October, which, like Columbus Day, recognizes colonial history, and is facing increasing protest.

[2] Sarah Begley, "Alaska Renames Columbus Day 'Indigenous Peoples Day,'" Time Magazine, October 12, 2015.

[3] Berkeley, California started the trend in 1992 as a part of a protest to the Quincentennial (500-year) celebration for Columbus's arrival in the Americas. The first recorded celebration of Columbus in the United States happened in 1792 on the 300th anniversary of his landing in the Americas. It was organized by the Society of St. Tammany (or the Columbian Order), which was a New York political organization. President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day a holiday in 1892; President Franklin Roosevelt made it a regular national holiday in 1934.

[4] The October 12, 1492 date attributed to Columbus's "discovery" was on the Julian Calendar. On the Gregorian Calendar it was October 21, 1492.

Denali National Park & Preserve

Last updated: October 27, 2021