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.


More in News

This photo shows the National Archives in the Sand Point neighborhood of Seattle that has about a million boxes of generally unique, original source documents and public records. In an announcement made Thursday, April 8, 2021, the Biden administration has halted the sale of the federal archives building in Seattle, following months of opposition from people across the Pacific Northwest and a lawsuit by the Washington Attorney General's Office. Among the records at the center are tribal, military, land, court, tax and census documents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Biden halts sale of National Archives center in Seattle

Tribes and members of Congress pushed for the halt.

This photo shows Unangax̂ Gravesite at Funter Bay, the site where Aleut villagers forcibly relocated to the area during World War II are buried. A bill recently passed by the Alaska House of Representatives would make the area part of a neighboring state park. (Courtesy photo / Niko Sanguinetti, Juneau-Douglas City Museum) 
DO NOT REUSE THIS PHOTO WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM JUNEAU DOUGLAS CITY MUSEUM. -BEN HOHENSTATT
Bill to preserve Unangax̂ Gravesite passes House

Bill now heads to the state Senate.

After over 30 years at 3100 Channel Drive, the Juneau Empire offices are on the move. (Ben Hohenstatt /Juneau Empire File)
The Juneau Empire is on the move

Advertising and editorial staff are moving to Jordan Creek Center.

The state announced this week that studded tires will be allowed for longer than usual. In Southeast Alaska, studded tires will be allowed until May 1 instead of April 15. (Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire)
State extends studded tire deadline

Prolonged wintry weather triggers the change.

COVID at a glance for Monday, April 12

The most recent state and local numbers.

Has it always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Sunday, April 11, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Court sides with Dunleavy in appointments dispute

The court, in a brief order, reversed a ruling by a superior court judge.

The Juneau Police Department are seeking Brenda Jay Gallant, 40, after she was indicted recently for her alleged role in a 2021 vehicle arson. (Courtesy photo / JPD)
Police seeking woman indicted for arson

The indictment for the August fire came this March.

Most Read