October 18th – Alaska Day

By , October 17, 2009

Alaska Day, I would argue, means next to nothing to most people—even to most Alaskans—unless they have some connection to Sitka.

Elsewhere in the state, it’s a day off for just about everybody. A few towns hold small events or observe it in some way, but a lot of Alaskans I speak to have no idea of its significance.

October 18th, Alaska Day, commemorates the day in 1867 when Russia transferred their perceived ownership of Alaska to the United States. I say perceived, of course, because they owned it in the sense that a white nation laid claim to it. The locals, particularly the Tlingits, saw it differently, but that’s a topic for another time.

Sitka was the capital of Russian America—Alaska—at the time, so the ceremonial transfer between nations took place there. That is why Alaska Day is a big deal in Sitka, with parades, ceremonies, a fair and other celebrations. Citizens are urged to dress in old-fashioned styles, preferably circa 1867. Men are urged to grow beards for the occasion, and in the past, could be apprehended and jailed or fined by a wild gang of “keystone cops” if found clean-shaven. A pageant and ceremony commemorating the transfer takes place on Castle Hill, the knoll on which Alexander Baranof, Russian Governor of Alaska, built his mansion. They hold a formal ball in the evening.

Maybe this is not much by some people’s standards, but if you like small town celebrations, this one is hard to beat. If you know and love Sitka, it’s even better. For me, on Alaska Day, Sitka’s where I want to be.

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