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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

"There are as many ways to be Indigenous as there are Native people in the state, and because our communities are in such a state of flux and have changed so quickly over just a few short generations, we are all still figuring it out,” writes Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie, Inupiaq. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was one of those recent changes. As with any other topic, there are countless different ways that individual Indigenous Alaskans and the 200 + communities they belong to view ANCSA and navigate the dynamics it created.

Leading up to the 50th anniversary of ANCSA on Dec. 17, Indian Country Today will be highlighting a wide range of these experiences, including insights from the elders who fought for the land, perspectives from current leaders today, and future goals from younger generations.

Ben Velaise

Today, we hear from a young Alaska Native shareholder who doesn't let geographical distance get in the way of community and culture — and how he aims to further close divides by Indigenizing tech. 

Ben Velaise, Koyukon Athabascan, was raised spending summers at his family’s fishcamp on the Yukon River in the Koyukon region of Interior Alaska, while living in Los Angeles during the school year. He formerly worked in People Operations at Google, where he was also part of the leadership team for the Google American Indian Network. He’s currently pursuing a graduate degree in law and in business at the University of Chicago, and recently published an essay on ANCSA in an anthology out of the University of Minnesota Press titled “ANCSA: The Incorporation of Life and Land.” 

What motivated you to pursue this line of work?

Growing up each summer at fish camp, I value our Native traditions in the rural life. But with limited work opportunities in rural Alaska, there is a migration out of rural Alaska. I believe that internet connectivity is a powerful tool toward reaching our goals as Native communities– no matter what these goals may be. As a leader in the Google American Indian Network, I had the opportunity to build greater access to technology.

I did this in three ways: managing a program that trained over 2,000 Native-owned small businesses in core digital skills to promote business growth; partnering with Doyon and the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program to build pipelines from AKN communities and technology; and through advocacy in encouraging tribes to secure their broadband sovereignty under the FCC’s Tribal Priority Window. I wrote articles published in 12 Alaska newspapers to get the message out to tribes.

I had always wanted to go to law school, and my work at Google further inspired me to take the leap – internet connectivity relies on public policy and the law.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for the Alaska Native community to tackle in the next 50 years? 

ANCs have a unique dual purpose: to continually enhance our positions as financially strong Native corporations, but to promote the economic, social, and cultural well-being of our people too. Financial strength is important – it provides more opportunity streams for our people and political and economic leverage throughout the State. But it’s not everything.

ANCs have by and large been successful in their first pursuit, but I also think the last 50 years have shown that we’re more focused on profit and opportunities in urban areas than to purposefully invest in the future growth of our rural communities. I think the next 50 years will force ANCs to take a close look at what this second pursuit requires– it is my hope that the next 50 years brings even more meaningful, visible ANC investments in our rural and cultural communities.

What are some solutions that the community can work towards to achieve these goals?

I’ve learned that partnership is key. In recent years, our tribal governments and ANCs have mutually drifted apart. We should attempt to restore these ties, working together in lockstep to strategically partner to align on shared goals.

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What is one initiative related to Alaska Native Corporations/and or Alaska Native tribes that you view as a success?

The Supreme Court recently affirmed that ANCs constitute Tribes for the purposes of the Cares Act. I think this was a huge success for our people. ANCs do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to social benefits we experience. They increase the number of opportunities available to our people. ANCs must have a seat at the table, at present, but in the future too. We must also do a better job at communicating how our complex system operates so we do not face issues such as this one in the future.

Ben's family fish camp on the Yukon River. 

Ben's family fish camp on the Yukon River. 

What is one of your favorite Alaska Native community / cultural memories?

I’m privileged to have grown up practicing subsistence salmon fishing traditions. Our subsistence practices have been handed down for generations–by my grandparents and mother. Each summer, my whole family comes together to live off the land, with no running water and no electricity. The practice of subsistence ties us to our land, to our spirituality, to our people, and to each other. Salmon is in my blood. One other deeply impactful tradition I had the privilege to participate in: the potlatch moose hunt. It’s hard to explain the gratitude and healing infused throughout this hunt to honor and memorialize our loved ones.

What is the most important lesson you learned from older generations?

It might go without saying but the most important value I’ve learned and held with me each and every day is to respect our elders. I have expanded this lesson to include all elders. I feel as though this value is lost in the Western world – and it is one that I have learned reciprocates respect back toward me– from elders, managers, or mentors.

What is one word that comes to mind when you think of ANCSA?

Experiment.

What is something you think people should know about you, your community, or your work that most people don’t?

I think most people don’t know just how innovative ANCSA truly was and continues to be – we take it for granted because we’ve lived it for 50 years, but when you step back and look at the bigger picture (how other nations, including our own, have extinguished Indigenous land claims) it stands that ANCSA was an enormous experiment – and it’s important to remember that we’re just at the beginning of this ever evolving experiment.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I feel immense gratitude for being a part of our community and brought up in the beauty of our cultural traditions. Even with evolving issues, we have a rich and productive culture. My Great-grandmother Sitsoo, Sally Woods Hudson, used to say-- to be productive and share that productivity is the greatest form of wealth.

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This story is part of Indian Country Today’s series on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Funding for ICT’s ANCSA project is provided in part by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism. Stay updated on ICT’s ANCSA project using #ANCSA50 and at https://indiancountrytoday.com/tag/ancsa-50.

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