Story last updated at 10/21/2009 - 1:32 pm
Walking past the onion-domed St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka this Alaska Day weekend, I was struck by the kaleidoscope of costumes. At first glance, I saw a confusing mash-up of ruffles, ribbons, feathers, kilts, shawls, petticoats, khaki and camouflage. By the end of the day, however, the pieces aligned, creating a living exhibit showcasing Alaska's past and present.
"It's a reflection of this melding of cultures in Sitka that over the years has been such a popular port," said Elaine Strelow, a festival coordinator who could be seen throughout the week in nineteenth century period dress.
Alaska Day 2009 served the usual purpose: commemoration of the purchase of the Alaska territory by the United States from Russia on October 18, 1867, bargain priced at less than two cents per acre. It also marked the culmination of a year spent celebrating Alaska's fiftieth anniversary of statehood. For many, the celebration signified an end to long summer hours in fishing and tourism - a chance to enjoy the rebellious spirit of the state in the company of fellow Alaskans.
In October 1949, Sitkans erected a statue of a prospector on the lawn of the Pioneer Home. Planned by the Alaska Day Committee, the current celebration of the property transfer is over a week long, culminating with a reenactment of flag lowering and raising and a military black powder salute to every state in the nation.
Without intending it, many revelers wore the utilitarian attire of Alaska present: fleece, rainproofed jackets and Xtratuf rubber boots. Others dressed out to show their affiliations. The U.S. Forest Service wore their custom hue of green while Shriners in maroon sped through town with fezzes flying. The Sitka High School marching band wore a uniform of printed blue coats and Xtratufs.
A collection of bagpipers roamed through town, stopping at bars, open houses and the Alaska Day Ball. Owing more to the exuberance of the celebration than historical significance, the pipers have nonetheless established a legacy of their own. This year, Stroller White Pipes and Drums from Juneau and the Seattle Firefighters Pipes & Drums joined the Sitka Spruce Scottish Highland Dancers. According to Strelow, bagpipe groups have attended the festivities for decades with Seattle pipers participating for the last 20 years.
Tlingit dancers wore shawls and hats representing the oldest Sitka history. Athabascan and Yupik students attending Mt. Edgecumbe High School danced in Sunday's parade wearing hand-sewn traditional tops.
Members of the U.S. Army 17th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion from Fort Richardson mingled with Alaska Army National Guard soldiers, the 9th Army Band from Fort Wainwright and members of Sitka's own Coast Guard Air Station. With a long history as a military district and as the nearest state to eastern Europe and Asia, Alaskan armed forces have included Coast Guard, Army, Navy, and Air Force plus reservists and guardsmen.
The Keystone Kops, Alaska Day cheerleaders since the 1950s, used their bright clothing to fulfill an oath to "mayhem and merriment." For $2 I received a large button and a lipsticked kiss on the cheek from a Kop. Wearing whistles and police hats covered in multi-color boas, the crew raised roughly one-third of the funds necessary to present the festival.
"We tell our story by what's on our coat," Captain Jenn Houx said of the flair-adorned former military jackets. "Each piece is acquired from someone you love or are representing."
Most striking were the elaborate hoop skirts, bonnets and soldier garb of those in 1800s dress. Starting at $200 for purchase, some rented dresses from Seattle at a rate of $75 per day. Wendy Nelson purchased her formal dress for $235 from the Web site of a Russian store. Nelson participated in the reenactment on Castle Hill, the original site of the property transfer ceremony.
Governor Sean Parnell, also present on Castle Hill, spoke to the feeling of his first Alaska Day celebration. "I think it's a wonderful remembrance," he said. "I really appreciate the sense of history in place in Sitka."
I had to agree. Everywhere I looked, I saw some piece of history or identity manifested through costuming. It wasn't a show. It wasn't a performance for tourists. It was a genuine collection of proud and patriotic Alaskans happy to be American.
Jessie M. Waddell is a freelance writer living in Sitka.