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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 to which they belong 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.

Bonnie Morris

Bonnie Morris is a Haida woman of the Eagle Moiety and is of the Ts’aahl Laanaas clan, as well as a shareholder of Sealaska and Haida Corporation. She grew up in the village of Hydaburg where her grandparents and elders taught her the Haida values that continue to shape her life. She was previously the Hydaburg Project Coordinator & Liaison for the POW Wellness Coalition, where she focused on healing, prevention, and creating trusting relationships. Morris currently works with the Tlingit & Haida Self Governance Department and part time with Native Peoples Action as a Rural Community Engagement Specialist.

What motivated you to pursue this line of work?

Being born Haida – we are the guardians and caretaker of our lands, waters, air, and animals in our traditional territories. We are also responsible for our children and the future of our traditions, culture, knowledge, and earth. Also, my parents inspired me in their own ways, and I am honoring them in the paths they kept me on.

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

Balance – equity – housing – True history, enhancement of culture and traditions.

What is a goal you have for the community in the next 50 years?

A museum, a cultural center, a historical home/educational center, revitalization of language and implementing culturally appropriate education. Also, expanding the classroom to be outside on the lands, for learning math, sciences, engineering, and connection of the birds, game, plants, trees, and waters. Making sure both fresh and salt waters are protected and respected.

In your opinion, what are some solutions that the community can work towards to achieve these goals?

The first and second steps have been set in place, many school districts are now headed in the direction of integrating cultural knowledge and history into classrooms. For example, in the Hydaburg school district in 2015, teachers, the school board, and the administration created a new strategic plan to accomplish this. In 2018, they started a preschool immersion program. The re-centering of our social structure has a harmonious balance and its structure is aimed at wellness for all.

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

That the tribes were able to obtain and keep some of their traditional homelands and territories.

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

As a child growing up with my grandparents and aunties and uncles, we would spend summers picking berries together, putting up salmon, running and playing with all the other youth in the village. Our dance group traveled all over and performed our Haida traditional songs and dances. But the most precious times were the times on the beach working on salmon and putting it up in the smoke house and canning – the family would work all day and eat together. I remember my grandparents and parents making a rock pit to cook the salmon in the rocks – they lined up rocks around the pit, gathered skunk cabbage, and prepped the salmon for baking – which included bacon. Once the salmon was prepped, they would wrap it in the skunk cabbage, like tin foil, and would cover up the pit with more rocks and build a fire above it. The fire was to boil our canned salmon for a few hours. We used the galvanized garbage cans to fill the canned salmon, or sometimes old oil tanks and filled it with water. A metal frame was used to set across the fire and the can was set on top. Then everyone would eat, and we would picnic, and before I learned l how to swim, I would mud crawl and pretend I was swimming, showing off for my parents and grandparents – I felt the connection, the kinship, and the love. Those were the most memorable times.

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

Honoring the land and respecting the sustenance that the waters and lands provided to the people. Listening to stories that had a moral and a value to share. The stories ignited my imagination and taught me to show reverence to all the gifts provided by the earth.

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

Greed.

What is something you think people should know about you, your community, or your work, that people might not be aware of?

We care and protect the land and waters because it takes care of us humans. If we do not change the trajectory we are on and protect the waters, lands, air and humanity itself, the future will not be positive. The earth is a divine, living, majestic entity as we are, and it wants to continue to provide. However, humanity must also cross over to the collective conscience for a healthy society to occur locally, regionally and around the planet.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

It is time to rewrite and distribute the True History of our past and present, to ascend and transform into a better future. 

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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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