PORTLAND, Ore. - Singling out its 2004 recipient - Clarence Alexander,
member of the Dranjik Gwich'in tribe who resides in Fort Yukon, Alaska -
Ecotrust's Buffet Award comes of age. In 2001, Howard and Peter Buffet
first funded the annual award of $25,000 for exceptional, cutting-edge
leadership that improves social, economic, political or environmental
conditions in indigenous communities.
In the years following, the Buffets donated the same figure to honor
individuals like Alexander. The brothers must have liked what they saw,
because now the Buffets announced they will give $500,000 over the next
five years to an Ecotrust endowment that will be established to fund the
Buffet Award in perpetuity.
"We have an awards ceremony annually that is so well received that we go
beyond capacity and have to put people on waiting lists," Elizabeth Woody,
program director for the Buffet Award, said. "Howard and Peter probably
would have never met the individuals we have honored - both the recipients
of the leadership award and the finalists - except through this occasion."
Woody wears a long jacket as red as a Southwest sunset and her voice is
passionate. "These are individuals who have lived in their homelands for
10,000 years or more," she said. She spoke of people who believe in what
they're doing with all their heart, not only for themselves and their
families but for those yet to come. What is at stake, then, is nothing less
that the very fabric of indigenous cultures - economy, social systems,
politics - everything. No wonder the Buffets decided to make the
recognition award a regular event.
Clarence Alexander cut a smart figure in his tuxedo. The gold of his jacket
and the bright electric blues in the beadwork set off his mocha skin and
black hair. And if Alexander's bio is any indication, winners of the Buffet
Award do make a difference and are stemming the tide of dissipation that
threatens tribal integrity.
Alexander is one of the people who helped the Gwich'in tribes take on
nothing less than Big Oil. He argued that the drilling is not as
environmentally conscientious as the courts say, and that it impacts the
Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, the status of which in turn influences
indigenous livelihoods. Alexander pressed for unhindered migratory pathways
for birds and mammals, as well as clean air and water functioning
ecosystems throughout the Yukon River watershed require. He singled out the
industrialized world as responsible for pollution and birth defects in
animal populations and people.
Alexander is cofounder of both the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments
and the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. Through grassroots
organizations that counterbalance big government and business, he works to
localize management of natural resources and tribal health care funding.
His work has improved health care, increased tribal oversight of federal
land management, and resulted in greater indigenous control of programs
that influence Native housing, education and environmental quality. In
tandem with the Buffet Award, the Institute for Tribal Development at
Portland State University will incorporate Alexander's insights and
achievements into its Great Tribal Leaders curriculum.
Said Woody: "People like Clarence are at the forefront of unique bioregions
that are a part of their heritage and livelihood." Executive Director of
Ecotrust Spencer Beebe concurred and explained that what is at stake is a
fragile treasure. "Clarence's leadership demonstrates the strength of
indigenous knowledge," Beebe said. "These are cultural values and vision
that have been honed over thousands of years of knowing the land and its
Buffet Award contestants are nominated by colleagues or individuals in the
communities in which they work. That they have the "respect of others who
value them and wish them the best," said Woody, is further testament that
people like Clarence Alexander are truly deserving of the $25,000 cash
award. More, that wisdom has motivated Howard and Peter Buffet to fund an
endowment to the tune of a half million dollars also sets a tone - indeed,
establishes a drum beat that is resounding throughout Indian country and
will be heard for years to come.