For many Alaskans, Alaska Day is just another bank holiday. But for Sitkans, it’s the biggest community event of the year -- and they cram so much into the week leading up to Oct. 18 that it’s impossible to do it all.
Just ask Patti Kern Parcel. She tried.
A resident of Billings, Montana, Kern Parcel has visited Alaska in just about every season, so she was excited to cross Sitka’s Alaska Day celebration off her bucket list in 2019. And she made the most of the experience, from getting her picture taken with the volunteers in period clothing who greet visitors at the airport to picking out her own old-fashioned gown for the Alaska Day Ball to taking in the chili cook-off.
“I did a lot,” Kern Parcel said. “I was exhausted at the end of it.”
But you don’t have to wear yourself out to get the most out of Alaska Day -- the annual commemoration is designed to be exactly as active, relaxing or reflective as you want it to be.
Why Alaska Day?
Alaska Day marks the anniversary of Alaska’s transfer from Russia to the United States in 1867. The transfer took place in Sitka, Russia’s colonial capital, and every year, the Southeast Alaska community goes all out to celebrate its role in the state’s history. Similar to Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous and Fairbanks’ Golden Days, Sitka’s Alaska Day sets fun and festive public events against a historical backdrop that nods to the holiday’s 19th century roots.
The week leading up to Alaska Day begins with the swearing in of the Keystone Kops, volunteer ambassadors who sell booster buttons to raise funds for the celebration (and mark those who don’t pony up with a big red lipstick kiss on the cheek). The Seattle Firefighters Pipes and Drums usually fly in early to do school visits, then spend the weekend playing at gatherings around town. There’s a brew cruise hosted by the Sitka Historical Society, school clinics presented by the 9th Army Band, an air-sea rescue demonstration staged by the U.S. Coast Guard, and an Indigenous peoples’ celebration. The Russian Orthodox church holds a fish pie and fry bread sale, while the Lutheran church hosts a pie sale. Guest speakers, community concerts and social events fill the schedule.
“It’s a fun time,” said Alaska Day Committee Chair Ted Allio. “Everybody in town is welcome to put something on our schedule.”
Kern Parcel’s visit started with a gown fitting, taking advantage of the collection of period ensembles that the Alaska Day committee makes available to borrow. Other guests source their own 19th century party garb or attend in military dress uniform or traditional Alaska Native regalia. Although she did encounter some logistical challenges -- 1800s hoop skirts were not made to fit into 2000s automobiles -- Kern Parcel said she loved the opportunity to dress up.
“You know, you’ve been to a prom when you’re in high school, but to go to a ball when everybody is in these beautiful period dresses, and then men are in either military uniforms or suits that are from the period -- and the Army band was awesome,” Kern Parcel said. “Of course there were drinks and hors d’oeuvres and all kinds of things. They had a contest on who had the best outfit for the period.”
After dancing the night away at the Alaska Day Ball, Kern Parcel was up bright and early for the annual parade, complete with everything you’d expect: bands, members of the military, decorated vehicles and classic cars.
“It was a really cool parade,” Kern Parcel said. “Right after, I walked up to the top of Castle Hill to watch the transfer ceremony, where they reenact the transfer of Alaska to the United States. As I was coming down from that, the Coast Guard was doing an air-sea rescue demonstration out of a helicopter, right there. Right there! That was pretty awesome to watch.”
That same day, Kern Parcel managed to squeeze in a military memorial service at Sitka National Cemetery, a Tlingit dance performance at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall and a chili cook-off, among other activities -- and she knows she didn’t even manage to make it to every single event.
“A lot happens in a day and a half,” Kern Parcel said. “We went from one activity to the next. It was wonderful. It just went so fast.”
An evolving observance
While Alaska Day is a longtime tradition in Sitka, it is not a static one.
In recent years, an effort has been made to incorporate and respect the experience of Sitka’s Tlingit people. For members of the Kiks.ádi clan, Alaska Day represents the transfer of their traditional lands from one colonizing entity to another.
“Russia never really ‘owned’ Alaska,” Allio said. “The Russians pretty much occupied it.”
A growing number of Sitkans now observe Oct. 18 as a day of reconciliation and recognition of the effects of historical trauma on Alaska Native people. In 2017, a grassroots mourning ceremony was held at the bottom of Castle Hill, and it grew in the following years to include a procession to the top of the hill, which was once the site of a Tlingit strategic fortification. Now known as the Reconciliation Ceremony, this event reflects many Sitkans’ hope that Alaska Day will continue to evolve and reflect the experiences of the area’s original residents.
In 2020, a new and equally historic event changed the shape of Alaska Day when the global pandemic forced the cancellation of in-person events. This year, organizers set out to find safe ways to celebrate.
“This year, our theme is ‘coming together,’” Allio said.
While the Alaska Day Ball is on hiatus, other events have been adapted for the time of COVID. The Sitka Historical Society Annual Alaska Day Brew Fest and Brisket Cookoff will take place outdoors, as will a swap meet and the Army band concert. A new event, paddle board races for ages 8 and up, will be held on Swan Lake in the heart of downtown. And as always, historical hosts will greet visitors at the airport -- they’ll just stand outside rather than in the terminal.
“Last year we didn’t do anything, so this year we’re going to try and do as much as we can,” said Allio, who has been working with the organizing committee since January to plan this year’s slate of events. “You just need to come on down one of these times.”
For Kern Parcel, once wasn’t enough. While she won’t make it back to Sitka this October, she’s already thinking about returning to squeeze the most out of Alaska Day again in the future.
“I’ve been in many different months to Sitka, and the Alaska Day Ball and just the whole Alaska Day activity was probably one of my favorites,” Kern Parcel said. “I would love to take my husband and get him outfitted and get him to the ball.”
This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Visit Sitka. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.