Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Indigenous people of Alaska have a lot to celebrate but face responsibilities and challenges too. That was the message Monday at two celebrations of Indigenous Peoples' Day in Anchorage.

About 60 people met at a children’s playground to celebrate it getting revamped to reflect Dena’ina Athabascan culture. The renovated park will have a playground, benches, a sledding hill, swings and concrete Beluga whales. Real Beluga grow to 10-15 feet and weigh between 1,000 and 3,000 pounds. The playground replicas are much smaller.

“Belugas were an important subsistence resource for the Dena'ina,” said Senior Curator of Alaska History and Indigenous Culture for the Anchorage Museum and Native Village of Eklutna President Aaron Leggett, Dena’ina Athabascan. He said the Dena’ina invented a unique way to harvest the whales, using the “yuyqul,” or Beluga spearing tree.

Senior Curator of Alaska History and Indigenous Culture for the Anchorage Museum and president of the Native Village of Eklutna Aaron Leggett, is Dena’ina Athabascan. He welcomed people to the grand opening of a playground renovated to reflect Dena'ina cultural themes. Oct. 11, 2021 (Photo from video by Joaqlin Estus)

The Dena’ina hunters would wait for low tide in Cook Inlet then “they would go to areas where they know the Belugas congregated.They would take a large spruce tree, debark it, flip it upside down, anchor it in the mud. A hunter would climb on the top of it, and he would sit in that perch created by the root structure and wait until the Belugas came by,” Leggett said. The park has a replica of a spearing tree.

One of the Alaska Native elements in a renovated downtown playground at 538 W. 10th Ave. in Anchorage, is the "yuyqul", or spearing tree. A replica is shown left of center in this photo. The yuyqul was a tree placed upside down in Cook Inlet's mud flats for use by the Dena'ina Athabascan people to hunt Beluga whales. The Anchorage Municipality and Anchorage Parks Foundation held a grand opening of the revamped park on Oct. 11, 2021 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

It will also have a fence decorated with an abstract design based on Dena’ina porcupine quill patterning. An Alaska Native Advisory Design Committee worked on the redesign and will be working with the city assembly and mayor to rename Frontierland park.

Nick Gonzales, Mexican and Apache, said, “I'm really happy to be here on this Indigenous day. I’m glad that it's being recognized.”

His wife, Marilyn Balluta, Dena’ina Athabascan, said, “I think it's really great, recognizing and acknowledging people. It’s a long time coming because there's so much history around the Anchorage area and also in the Mat-Su area (Matanuska-Susitna valleys 50 miles outside Anchorage) too.”

Her main message is, “I would like people to know that the Dena’ina people are still here living on this land,” said Bulluta.

Marilyn Balluta, Dena'ina Athabascan, served on the Alaska Native Advisory Design committee for renovated playground in Anchorage, Alaska. The revamped playground incorporates Alaska Native art and themes. The Parks Foundation and Municipality of Anchorage held a grand opening of the park on Oct. 11, 2021 (Photo from video by Joaqlin Estus)

Survival was no small feat, according to Harold Napoleon, Yup’ik, author of Yuuyaraq: the Way of the Human Being. He was one of the speakers at a virtual celebration of the day hosted by multiple organizations. He said when the Russians arrived on Kodiak Island in the 1700s, there were 20,000 Unangan people. When they left, there were only 2,000 Unangan.

“That’s how we got introduced to the West,” said Napoleon. “It was extermination. Our people there on the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak, they know very well what you go through when you’re being massacred. So that’s where we come from.

“But guess what? We’re still here,” Napoleon said.

“We've been through a lot since 1784. We've been put in boarding schools. We were shipped all over the United States. They gave us names, any old name they wanted to give us, but we survived all of that.” Napoleon said. He said Alaska Natives are still recovering, healing, from the historical trauma of those events and of the epidemics that wiped out villages.

“Our new generation, our young people, you have to pick up and continue the work. We also have to save our languages. Every child should know their language because the language, our Native language is how our spirit speaks,” he said.

Mark Haldane, Tsimpshian, wore regalia to honor the cultural Dena'ina Athabascan cultural theme in a renovated playground in downtown Anchorage. Oct. 11, 2021 (Photo from video by Joaqlin Estus).

Ethan Schutt, Koyukon Athabascan, is chairman of the Alaska Pacific University board of trustees. He said the tribal college is on the upswing from a hard spell. He said its student body recently increased to 545, the highest in five years up from a historic low point last year. A quarter of the students are Native.

Schutt quoted the university’s founder, Dr. Peter Gould, Unangax, who gave a speech in 1978 at the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives.

“‘When Congress passed the (Alaska) Native Land Claims Settlement Act, while much can be said, pro and con, about this act, it does for the first time in our recent history recognize us as a people, people who can be charged with tremendous responsibilities and challenging opportunities, people who can be called upon to readjust their lifestyle so as to participate fully in the decision-making process and in the full scale of personal, social and community affairs, which must be responsibly undertaken by both Native and non-Native citizens of Alaska to achieve a better way of life for all her people and assume full responsibility in the affairs of our nation and in our relationship with the world,” Schutt quoted Gould.

Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough, Inuit-Alaska, is the international chairperson of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. She agrees Natives have both successes and challenges. She said Alaska Natives have made “extraordinary strides,” and there are positive developments.

Dalee Sambo Dorough, Inuit, is international chairperson for the Inuit Circumpolar Council. 2015 (file photo by Joaqlin Estus)

However, “the voices of the tribal governments in Alaska, I think many of their voices, their objectives, their aspirations remain outstanding despite the positive advances that have been made.

“I think that the issues like the recent collapse of the salmon along the Kuskokwim and Yukon river is a perfect example as to why our food security and hunting, fishing and harvesting, which were purportedly extinguished by ANCSA (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act), are important reminders about the role of tribal governments and the role of our people in our leadership, especially at the micro level, at the local level, that those issues need to be informed by tribal governments and their leadership,” Dorough said.

(Related: Dwindling Alaska Salmon Leave Indigenous People in Crisis)

(Related: Fish Flown In After Yukon Salmon Plummet)

On Monday, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation commemorating Indigenous Peoples'’ Day. He was the first U.S. president to do so. That recognition came earlier in Alaska.

Former Alaska Gov. Bill Walker named the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day in 2018. He's shown here at an opening of an Anchorage playground that was renovated to reflect Dena'Ina Athabascan culture. Oct. 11, 20221 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

In his welcome at the opening of the park, Leggett gave a shout out to former Gov. Bill Walker, who was there. “I remember three years ago, him at the Anchorage museum signing a proclamation, making an Indigenous Peoples’ day a recognized holiday in the state of Alaska, and that was a really meaningful moment.”

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