Natalie Soto, 2, helps sing with the All Nations Children Dancers as Juneau residents celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Natalie Soto, 2, helps sing with the All Nations Children Dancers as Juneau residents celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Bill would make permanent Alaska Native Heritage Month

Law ensures every November would honor Alaska’s first people

Former Gov. Bill Walker issued multiple proclamations declaring November as Alaska Native Heritage Month, but those proclamations didn’t do anything permanent.

Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson said he appreciated having the recognition and the chance to get more exposure for tribes around the state. Still, it didn’t feel like quite enough.

“It’s important for us to be able to put a positive light on the Native population of Alaska,” Peterson said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s meant a great deal that our previous governor’s done that, but even then, I asked in some of my own speeches for a permanent recognition, a more formal recognition.”

On Wednesday, two senators proposed a bill that would make it permanent. Sens. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, and Donny Olson, D-Golovin, introduced Senate Bill 86, which establishes Alaska Native Heritage Month permanently as November. The bill now begins its journey through the legislative process, and was referred to the State Affairs Committee.

This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment endeavor from Gray-Jackson, she said in an interview Wednesday. Last month, she introduced legislation to permanently make February Black History Month in Alaska. Confirming Alaska Native Heritage Month, she said, is in the same vein. Though bills like this might not do anything to address the biggest questions facing the Legislature such as the budget or Alaska’s rising crime rates, it shows residents that legislators care about them, she said.

“I think the best way to let our community know that we give a damn is to do things like this,” Gray-Jackson said.

[Gray-Jackson hoping Black History Month bill passes in February]

She said she was honored that Olson, who is Alaska Native, co-sponsored the bill with her.

Natalie Soto, 2, helps sing with the All Nations Children Dancers as Juneau residents celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)                                Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, speaks during a Senate Democrat press conference at the Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Natalie Soto, 2, helps sing with the All Nations Children Dancers as Juneau residents celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File) Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, speaks during a Senate Democrat press conference at the Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush problaimed November as National American Indian Heritage and Alaska Native Heritage Month, which set the stage for Walker’s proclamations and this new bill. Peterson said it’s taken a long time for this to become permanent in Alaska, but it’s better to happen later than never.

“In a way it does (surprise me), what with the overwhelming Native population in Alaska, half the nation’s tribes being in Alaska,” Peterson said, “but I commend them for finally putting it forward.”

Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, said in a statement to the Empire that this is a “progressive move” from Gray-Jackson and Olson and that she commended it.

“Alaska’s cultural diversity is one of the state’s richest resources and this action by the Legislature is a great statement to make to our citizens and nation,” Worl said.

Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard (Chalyee Éesh) Peterson gives a welcoming speech for Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard (Chalyee Éesh) Peterson gives a welcoming speech for Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Gray-Jackson said it’s a priority for her to get monthly recognitions such as this secured in state statute instead of leaving it up to year-by-year proclamations. During her nine years on the Anchorage Assembly, she said, she took the same approach. She said she promised herself that if she earned a spot in the Alaska Legislature, she would carry that desire on.

[Language takes center stage at Indigenous Peoples Day celebration]

The bill was introduced the same day that Olson took time on the Senate floor to recognize Iditarod champion Peter Kaiser, who became the first-ever person of Yup’ik descent to win the race. Honoring acheivements like that, Olson said in a press release, is what Alaska Native Heritage Month is all about.

“Shedding light on the accomplishments of Alaska Natives showcases the foundation of this state,” Olson said in the release. “Each recognition celebrates our history, culture, and language, and continues our efforts in preserving and revitalizing our way of life for generations to come.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


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