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Columbus Day renamed Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska

Alaska's governor and the Anchorage mayor have both named the second Monday in October as "Indigenous Peoples Day," joining the movement of cities across the country to reframe the federal Columbus Day holiday.

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz signed the Municipality of Anchorage's proclamation Monday morning during the opening remarks of the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference, which brings hundreds of Alaska Natives from across the state to downtown Anchorage in the days leading up to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

"The more we can do to strengthen the ties between the communities that make up Anchorage and make up Alaska, the better," Berkowitz said in an interview after he made the surprise announcement around 9 a.m.

About an hour later, Liz Medicine Crow, president and CEO of First Alaskans Institute, stepped onto the stage at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center to announce Gov. Bill Walker had also signed a proclamation naming October's second Monday as Indigenous Peoples Day.

"This distinction is really massive because now we're leading the nation, here in Alaska," she said.

Medicine Crow's announcement was met with loud applause from the hundreds in the crowd at the conference. Adults, teenagers and children huddled near the stage to get their photographs taken with copies of the two proclamations. Students posed with the papers, including a group from Hoonah City School District in Southeast Alaska. Raymond Osborne, 17, said that the announcements left him speechless.

Medicine Crow said in an interview that for her, the proclamations are "a recognition that indigenous peoples matter to both the state of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage and it gives us a platform to continue to work on equitable law, policy and relationships."

Willie Hensley, a former state legislator and longtime Alaska Native leader, said the proclamations represented a "little bit of a balancing of the scales" in Alaska.

"It's about damn time," he said with a laugh. For him, it meant all people in the state can move forward together. "There's been a lot of repression. It's time that people are able to feel a lifting of that repression," he said.

By Monday afternoon, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board had also passed a resolution at a special meeting Monday naming Indigenous Peoples Day.

For students, school remained in session Monday because the state of Alaska does not officially recognize Columbus Day.

However, Columbus Day has remained a federal holiday for more than a century, traditionally commemorating the 1492 arrival in the Bahamas of Christopher Columbus' voyage from Spain.

The celebration as the "discovery" of the New World has provoked increasing backlash from indigenous and nonindigenous groups that view it as glorifying centuries of racism and oppression.

Before Berkowitz signed the proclamation Monday morning, Eklutna Chief Lee Stephan spoke at the conference about growing up in Eklutna, a Native village within the municipality. He said he tried to "figure out what the heck was wrong with us." What led to the drinking, suicide, abuse and drugs, he asked. Then, he provided an answer.

"I want you all to write this down and look it up in the white man's dictionary, all of you get a pen in your hand," Stephan said. "To know what's going on in our lands -- the word, 'colonialism.'"

Stephan said the announcement from Berkowitz Monday was unexpected, but welcome.

Former U.S. Senator Mark Begich also spoke at the conference. In an interview, he praised the naming of "Indigenous Peoples Day" and said he hopes it will provoke Alaskans to take time to think and reflect about indigenous people and their cultures.

The flurry of proclamations Monday put the state in line with a number of other U.S. cities that have named the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day, including Albuquerque; Portland, Oregon; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Olympia, Washington, according to The Associated Press.

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