Indigenous Peoples Day at UAF

UAF Hosts 2nd Annual Indigenous Peoples Day

Gwich’in elder Luke Titus gives a blessing at Troth Yeddha’ Park, the future site of an indigenous studies center.

The University of Alaska held day-long celebrations for Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday, October 8th with guest performers from around the community and a visit from the Lieutenant Governor of Alaska.

“There was a time that this university reflected a society that was not particularly embracing of or understanding of or even welcoming of Alaska’s First Peoples and other races, and that has changed powerfully as society has changed,” said Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallot, a Tlingit from Yakutat in an interview with the Sun Star.

The day began with an invocation ceremony that was shortened by the cold temperatures that left the twenty or so spectators shivering as they circled up around the grass at Troth Yeddha’ Park on West Ridge.

After delivering the invocation in Gwich’in, Vice Chancellor of Rural and Native Education Evon Peter announced new funding goal.

“Our number one fundraising priority for the university is getting Troth Yeddha’ built,” he said, referring to the planned indigenous studies center. Troth Yeddha’s architectural plan was completed in 2014 by a renowned national architect, but lack of funding has stalled construction since then.

At the invocation, Gwich’in elder Luke Titus recounted a story of growing up in his home village of Minto, 60 miles down the Tanana River from Fairbanks. He recounted waking up in an unheated cabin on days much colder than Monday’s 20 degrees.

“Who in the heck would wanna get outta bed when its -30, or -40 outside?” he joked, “My uncle taught me to do those things without complaining.”

Celebrants walk from Troth Yeddha’ Park to the Wood Center on Monday Morning

Titus said his uncle would wake him on those cold morning and he would pretend to be sleeping, but eventually was forced to go outside to “run out,” for a morning jog. He was supposed to go to a certain tree a ways down the trail and come back to the cabin. One day his uncle caught him turning around before his tree.

“In life you can’t take shortcuts,” he said, “In life you are going all the way, and if you try to cut off, you’ll get caught like that.”  

After the 10am invocation, celebrants walked down to the Wood Center for an impromptu dance performance that redirected traffic through the side stairs.

Alaska Governor Bill Walker signed the bill establishing indigenous peoples day in July of 2017. That makes Alaska one of only two states to recognize the day, which was formerly celebrated in Alaska as Columbus Day.

Dancers Julian Thibedeau, Evon Peter, and Travis Cole perform an Athabaskan dance at the Wood Center

Julian Thibedeau, a second year student in Rural Development and a member of the Troth Yeddha’ drumming group at UAF, echoed Mallot’s optimism about the progress the university has made in recognizing indigenous heritage.

“It’s huge,” he said referring to the celebration, “When we ignore the facts of the origins of our country–and don’t get me wrong, American has done a lot of good, and stands for a lot of good things–but it’s huge for the university to acknowledge us. It doesn’t fix all the wrongs.”

He said that he sees reasons for optimism elsewhere too.

“Not just at the university but around Indian country there’s progress being made,” he said.