Governor Walker signs law recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska

Governor Walker in Utqiaġvik on June 24, 2017 after signing Indigenous Peoples Day into state law.
(Courtesy of the Governor’s Office of Alaska)

In Utqiaġvik over the weekend, Governor Bill Walker signed legislation recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska. The law establishes Alaska as the second state in the nation to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October, replacing Columbus Day.

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On Saturday, Governor Walker said, “This official recognition is just one way we as a state can acknowledge and celebrate the contributions made by First Peoples throughout the history of this land.”

For the past two years the Governor had issued one-year observances for the second Monday in October to be Indigenous Peoples Day. The signing of the new law will complete that effort and Alaska will join South Dakota in recognizing the holiday.

Representative Dean Westlake of Kotzebue, Senator Donny Olson of Nome, and Representative Zach Fansler of Bethel were in attendance for the signing, along with a number of representatives from the North Slope Borough. That’s according to Representative Fansler, who was also the first co-signer for House Bill 78, put forward by the representative from Kotzebue.

“At one point we were actually thinking about trying to carry this bill, you know. Representative Westlake ended up carrying it and we co-signed right away,” Fansler said.

The signing was held during Utqiaġvik’s annual Nalukataq whaling festival.

“They take the whales; they’ve been fermenting them, they, you know, obviously they harvested them back in April, and this is where they divvy up the whale parts to literally the entire community,” said Fansler.

According to Fansler, the Inupiauq tradition is a day-long festival where much of the town comes out to celebrate a successful whale hunt. Different parts of fermented whale are brought out with cakes and candy and followed by singing, a blanket toss, and then dancing. Fansler said that it was an appropriate occasion for signing the bill.

“People were already super enthusiastic,” Fansler said. “And then when you couple that with the idea that we were signing into law something that establishes the second Monday [of October] as Indigenous Peoples Day, you know it just made it all the better.”

The crowd and legislators were happy to see the bill finally come to fruition, said Fansler, as there have been several attempts over the years to pass similar legislation.

“You know, on the Senate side, on the House side, so I think there has been this push for some time, but, you know, for various reasons it just doesn’t move along. But this year was a year I think we have a historic legislature,” Fansler said.

Fansler considers this legislature to be historic for a number of reasons, one of those being that Alaska is finally seeing its first Alaska Native Speaker of the House.

“This is meant to be something that’s inclusive,” Fansler said. “And this is something to really promote Native culture throughout our state and recognize the amazing impact of our first people.”

Representative Fansler said that he’s looking forward to celebrating October 9 as Alaska’s first official Indigenous Peoples Day.

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