PUBLISHED: 6:22 PM on Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Alaska DAY
Week-long festival commemorates state's transfer from Russia to U.S.
SITKA - Elaine Strelow recalls how more than 40 years ago Alaska Day consisted of only a ball, parade and reenactment ceremony. Those were simpler times, at least when it came to organizing Alaska's oldest celebration.

These days, planning nearly two weeks of events requires dozens of volunteers and 10 months of preparation. Festivities now include concerts, a biathlon, a road race and memorial services.

Charles L. Westmoreland photo
  From left: Chris Dearborn, portraying U.S. Army Gen. George Rousseau, and Ron Conklin, as Russian Naval Capt. Alexi Pestchouroff, on Saturday reenact the Oct. 18, 1867 transfer of Alaska from Russia to the U.S. at Castle Hill as part of Sitka's Alaska Day events. Castle Hill was the original location of the land transfer. Russia moved its Alaska colonial capital from Kodiak to Sitka, known at the time as New Archangel, in 1808.
Strelow has witnessed first hand the evolution of Alaska Days from a small community event to a statewide celebration. But if you ask her, Alaska Day is about more than just fun and games: it's remembering the state's humble beginnings.

"Alaska Day is not just a celebration, it's a commemoration of historical events," she said. "It's a time for people to come together. For me, it's about sharing historical and cultural perspectives."

Alaska Day was first instituted in 1949 and commemorates the 1867 transfer of Alaska from Russia to the U.S.

Charles L. Westmoreland photo
  A U.S. Army airborne soldier out of Fort Richardson, Alaska, salutes the U.S. flag along with reenactors on Saturday in Sitka during the annual reenactment of Alaska's transfer from Russia to the U.S.
Even today, a mixture of Russian, American and Native Alaskan cultures are prevalent in the coastal city of about 9,000 full-time residents. St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Church sits in the heart of downtown just a few blocks from Totem Square, marked by its large, wooden totem pole overlooking Sitka Harbor.

During the week leading up to Alaska Day, men are encouraged to grow long beards and both men and women dress in mid-19th century attire. Eveningwear consists of long ball gowns made of velvet and silk for the women, many of whom wear petticoats underneath. Men dress in period-appropriate suits and wool Civil War uniforms. Many of Sitka's Tlingit population are adorned in Native regalia during formal events.

"It makes you feel so elegant," said Peggy Wilson, a state representative from Wrangell, about her gown during Saturday's ball held at Sitka's Centennial Hall.

Charles L. Westmoreland photo
  Members of the Juneau Shrine Club race down Lincoln St. on Saturday in Sitka during the city's annual Alaska Day parade. Alaska Day commemorates the Oct. 18, 1867 transfer of Alaska from Russia to the U.S., which took place at Castle Hill in Sitka.
The U.S. Army took control of Alaska in 1867 during the transfer ceremony atop Castle Hill in Sitka, where Baranof Castle housed the territory's Russian ruler. Members of the armed forces are invited back each year to take part of the reenactment of Alaska's transfer.

"The festival also honors military, who had a prominent role in Sitka's history," Strelow said.

Sitka, named New Archangel by its Russian occupants after the biblical archangel Michael, was made the capital of Russia's Alaska colonies in 1808, where it remained until the U.S. purchased the territory.

Army 2nd Lt. John Parks, a platoon leader with Fort Richardson's 25th Infantry Division (airborne), accompanied 13 soldiers to Sitka for this year's Alaska Day. Joining them were 23 musicians with the 9th Army Band out of Fort Wainwright, who performed concerts in Sitka schools during the day and concerts each evening. Also involved in events were members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

"I can't express enough how welcoming Sitka has been to us," Parks said. "It's a very proud town."

Army spokesman Brian Lepley, who has attended Alaska Day four of the past five years, said the Army has participated in the event for more than 40 years. The Army was left in control of Alaska territories until the 1890s.

"The Army wants to be part of the state and community by helping to recreate the original ceremony," he said. "It's our duty and privilege to be part of the Alaska Day."