Christopher Columbus didn’t meet an empty continent.
The state of Alaska will now recognize that fact.
On Sunday, the Alaska Senate voted 18-1 to approve House Bill 78 and label the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. That day is also known as Columbus Day.
“We want it to be an inclusive day,” said Rep. Dean Westlake, R-Kotzebue and the sponsor of HB 78.
“Whether my friends are Vikings or African-Americans, we’re all in this,” he added.
In Alaska, Columbus Day is a federal holiday — as it is in the rest of the United States — but it has never been formally recognized as a holiday by the state of Alaska. While your mail won’t get delivered on Columbus Day, state and municipal employees still go to work.
HB 78 doesn’t change that, and it doesn’t replace Columbus Day either. Both holidays will exist side-by-side on the same date.
“It made my day,” said Rosita Worl, director of the Sealaska Heritage Institute and a supporter of the bill.
“Some people might think it’s just a symbolic thing, but to me, I think we’re going in the right direction,” she said, explaining that it is a recognition of diversity.
“I am grateful to the Legislature for doing this, and of course to the governor for starting the movement,” she said.
The success of Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year follows repeated failed attempts in previous legislative sessions. Westlake recalls five other tries, and there may be more, according to legislative records. Last year, one such attempt passed the House but failed to pass the Senate.
In the meantime, six states and 42 major American cities have adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a supplement or replacement for Columbus Day.
Gov. Bill Walker has proclaimed Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Columbus Day for the past two years. HB 78 regularizes that declaration and makes it automatic.
The move was supported by Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the Alaska Federation of Natives, Sealaska Heritage Institute and Doyon Ltd., among others.
The reason for the push is straightforward: Columbus Day is seen as recognizing only the white, European side of the first-contact story. Adding Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that there were more points of view in 1492.
When the House passed HB 78 in February, Westlake said (to laughter from fellow legislators) that it places the holiday “on the same day that indigenous people discovered Christopher Columbus.”
Not everyone agrees with the idea of a shared holiday.
On Sunday, Senate President Pete Kelly was the lone “no” vote on the bill. He said having the holiday on Columbus Day “kind of makes it a little bit political.”
In the House, where seven lawmakers voted “no,” that view was more widespread.
It remains a minority view, however, and HB 78 is headed to Walker’s desk for his signature.
“My hope is by having this day of recognition, it will help people come together, in unification and celebration, and in appreciation of our multicultural state,” said Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin and the bill’s Senate sponsor, by email.
As Westlake added, “Whether you’re a fourth-generation Alaskan or a 400th generation Alaskan, we want to celebrate this. This is just a date of inclusiveness and celebrating. It’s a great day to be indigenous.”
Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 419-7732.