Story last updated at 10/10/2012 - 12:48 pm
Sitka's passion for Alaska Day is so great that it can't be contained in a single day, nor even a single week. Its flair for appreciating history in its city remains unrivaled for this day.
Sitka has been celebrating the state holiday since 1949, Elaine Strelow said. Strelow is the Sitka Alaska Day committee secretary. Strelow said that was the first recorded observance of the day, but there may have been earlier recognitions that weren't written of. In 1949, they unveiled the statue on the Pioneer's Home lawn.
"At that time it began with a one or two day event," she said. "Each year they reenact the transfer ceremony on what's called Castle Hill. The governor's residence was probably nothing you'd ever really call a castle. In the 1800s it was a very special place. Sitka was known as the Paris of the pacific because of the style of the governing class of the clergy that were here. Sitka had an extensive library and astronomical observatory, agricultural research station, magnetic observatory, seminary, and school for both young Russians and young Tlingits. Ship captains loved to come into Sitka back in the 1800s because they were so well received here, because of the elegance of the governors and their wives."
"It was a grand period in Sitka's history, we really were a curious mix of cultures because we had, in addition to the Tlingit people who were here, then the Russians who came in - the Russians also brought the Aleut people and other cultures from farther north in Alaska. They brought a lot of people from the Baltic Sea area: the Germans, Finns, Swedes."
The celebration of Alaska Day in Sitka includes festivities for several cultures, though colonial American, Alaska Native and Russian are most prominent.
"It started off from being a two day event to now it's more than a week long," Strelow said. "It always climaxes on the 18th, regardless of what day of the week it falls on."
Each year the theme changes, but events remain fairly static. This year Sitka's Alaska Day celebration theme honors Alaska Native Brotherhood's 100th anniversary.
ANB will be the grand marshal's of the parade, Strelow said.
The Write Women of Sitka annually host an essay writing contest for elementary and middle school students. This year, the theme is "Celebrating 100 Years of Alaska Native Brotherhood."
"This year, there was a little more latitude given to the theme," Strelow said. "So it's not limited to ANB and it's 100 years. Some folks wrote about civil rights, the struggle for civil rights, their culture and their family traditions."
There are 139 entrants in four age classes and cash prizes for the top three in each group. The Alaska Day Festival funds the contest.
The festival button also incorporates ANB's legacy, by using its logo and reading, "Honoring 100 years of the Alaska Native Brotherhood 1912-2012."
"The Alaska Native Brotherhood was founded here in Sitka 100 years ago this year," Strelow said. "It's a very significant milestone for a very significant organization. They were the first Native organization representing more than one tribe. They represented several tribes across Alaska, but especially across Southeast the Tlingit, the Haida, the Tsimshian. Over the years they have been the principal advocate for Native peoples in Alaska, long before there was much action on claims of settlement of traditional uses of the land. They also were the initial advocate for civil rights, human rights."
While the celebration spans for about two weeks, there are some "can't miss" events.
The annual ball, this year on Oct. 17, is always a highlight, Strelow said, because of the period costumes.
"It's the 1860s," Strelow said. "This is 1867 is just after the Civil War. We have a lot of women who dress up with really magnificent dresses with the hoop skirts. And men dress in tailcoats ... formal dress from that era. A number of folks come to the ball dressed as Russian military or American military. The United States Army came into Sitka on Oct. 18 of 1867 and became the custodians or caretakers from the Russians of their claim to Alaska."
The 9th Army Band from Fort Wainwright will perform music for the ball.
"They deploy about 25 band members here each year," Strelow said. "They offer band concerts. This year, that's on Tuesday night the 16th. While here they do a number of clinics for school students, training sessions, and provide some light entertainment in various local hospitals, pioneers homes and senior centers. They send a diverse group of ensembles, usually a Dixieland band, a brass quintet, and sometimes a woodwind group."
Another highlight is the New Archangel Dancers on Oct. 15.
"They go back to the late 60s," Strelow said. "It's an all-woman performing troupe. Throughout the summer they entertain visitors to Sitka with half-hour programs and demonstrations of the dances. Usually in the summer time the music is pre-recorded, but for the Alaska Day grand finale performance they bring in a number of local musicians who play music in the style of Russian folk tunes.
The Variety Show is also a hit, which includes the traditional judging of men's bears and women's bonnets (with prizes awarded).
"We commemorate a historic event, but we celebrate this diversity of cultures and the way people looked at the history of this era of Alaska," Strelow said. "We don't get stressed out over this divergence of opinions about whether this was good or bad or whether it should have happened or not. Or we try not to get caught up in controversy."
Sarah Day is the editor of Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at email@example.com.