Students at the University of Alaska Southeast will recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Oct. 12, a day otherwise known as Columbus Day. The student government recently passed a resolution to do this on the second Monday of every October.
“I had an essay assigned to me in high school about whether or not we should even celebrate Columbus Day and so I think that’s where some of my thoughts came about why we shouldn’t celebrate it,” Russell-Jensen said.
Growing up in Juneau, he said Columbus Day has never been a big deal. But he knows it’s still recognized in other parts of the country.
“They do Columbus Day sales, I guess. That’s kind of weird, but does that just mean you just walk into a store and just steal whatever you want?” he said.
For Russell-Jensen, Christopher Columbus represents the beginning of colonization and the genocide of indigenous people, not the discovery of America.
He got the idea to bring the resolution forward from Seattle. Its city council unanimously voted to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day last year. Minneapolis did it beforehand. Berkeley, California has been recognizing it since the 1990s.
The State of Alaska and the university system do not recognize Columbus Day as an official holiday. But Russell-Jensen said we’re all a result of colonization.
“We’re all results of genocide and language loss. I mean, I’m speaking English. That’s kind of weird. A hundred years ago, I’d probably be speaking three different languages if I lived here,” Russell-Jensen said.
He hopes the resolution continues the dialogue UAS is already having. Russell-Jensen is a Tlingit language student and says the college is playing an important role in revitalizing Alaska Native languages.
“UAS is doing some really amazing things about the importance of indigenous languages and culture, so I know that this isn’t going to be one day on the calendar, where, ‘Oh, we’re done.’ It’s not going to be like that,” he said.
But Russell-Jensen still thinks UAS can do better. He wants to see more Alaska Native teachers. Of the 102 full-time faculty members at UAS, only 3 are Alaska Native.
Chancellor Rick Caulfield said that’s something the college is focusing on through a new diversity action committee. He says UAS is continually looking at ways to expand educational opportunities around Alaska Native culture.
“It is something that I believe is important for all Alaskans and I think, to the extent that UAS is located in the homeland of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples … we have an obligation to provide education to include the languages and cultures of the peoples in this ancestral homeland,” Caulfield said.
UAS currently offers Alaska Native Languages and Studies as a minor or as an emphasis for a liberal arts degree. Caulfield says university faculty are discussing the possibility of turning it into its own degree program.