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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 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act 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.

Charlene Stern

Charlene Stern, Gwich’in, is the Vice Chancellor for Rural, Community, and Native Education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as well as the Vice President of Tanana Chiefs Conference, the tribal consortium for the 37 federally recognized tribes in Interior Alaska. She also previously served as the President of the Fairbanks Native Association. Stern is from Arctic Village, and is an enrolled member of the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government. She holds a bachelor’s degree in American Cultural Studies from Western Washington University, a master’s degree in Community and Regional Planning from the University of New Mexico, and a PhD in Indigenous Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In her profile, Stern evaluates the differences between Alaska Native corporations and tribes, discusses her generation's role as a vital link between elders and youth, and emphasizes the importance of staying connected to community. 

What motivated you to pursue this work?

I was raised between Fairbanks and my village, Arctic Village. And I spent a lot of time with elders growing up, who really instilled in me and those of my generation, the importance of identifying as a citizen of our tribal nation first, and the responsibilities that come with that. We were always encouraged to get the skills that we need, both in terms of Western education and our cultural education, so that we could put those skills and knowledge to use in the service of our people. That is something that has really been a guiding principle for me my entire life. I went outside for college, both for my bachelor's and my master's, which took six and a half years between both those degrees. But I always came home in the summer, and I interned with my tribal government for several of those summers. I never wanted to lose touch with the community that shaped me. My goal has always been to teach students, mostly in rural Alaska, the sort of skills and the philosophies on leadership that I learned, as they become the next generation of community development practitioners in the state.

During that time, I also really felt the calling to continue my work with the tribes. So I became very active in my tribe a number of years ago serving on a technical committee. A lot of my commitment is the same – to be of service to tribal people. The way that I've approached it is through education and my role at the University, but also in my advocacy work with the tribes.

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

One really important issue is for the State of Alaska to acknowledge the federally recognized tribes within the state, and to recognize them formally as sovereign nations. There's actually a ballot initiative going on right now that will hopefully lead to that recognition. So what does that recognition mean? We’ve already had tribal sovereignty since the 90s, when our tribes became federally recognized. But just like other Indigenous communities, we've had our own governance systems for millennia. So having the state formally recognize that, will really allow for greater government to government, meaningful relationships and consultations – which just isn't really in existence now. That's a challenge that we've been dealing with for many years, and you see it play out in all arenas, from education, to public safety to natural resource management.

What are some solutions that could achieve these goals?

I think one of the big issues that we have in Alaska is just the way that our land claims happened. It's not very often that tribal governments in Alaska own land. There are a few cases. My tribe owns 1.8 million acres of our traditional homelands, and we own it in fee simple title – 1.8 million acres of surface and subsurface. So we're positioned very differently than other Alaskan tribes who exist within a land base that's largely owned by city governments, village and regional corporations, and private land holders. We’re very different.

But there have been movements over the recent years to allow Alaska tribes to put land into trust. And for a while, during the previous administration, that ability for them to apply to do that, was really stalled. Hopefully moving forward, more tribes will have the opportunity to petition to get land put into trust, because with that comes a lot more control over jurisdiction, public safety, enforcement – things that are generally a given for tribes in the Lower 48, due to the status of their land. When we talk about our tribes having recognition, that recognition is important – but our ability to exercise our inherent rights that are tied to that recognition over our land, over our waters, over our subsistence – that’s the bigger picture. And land ownership, our ability to put land into trust, is absolutely related to that.

Is there anything you’d like to see Alaska Native Corporations focus on more?

It probably depends region to region because each corporation functions a bit differently and has different relationships with their communities. One of the fundamental issues with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act – of how the corporations are set up – is that they weren't set up to be a mechanism to provide direct funding back into the communities themselves. Tribal governments are responsible for the citizens of their community and the citizens of their tribe. It's a very collective, communal type of organization. But the corporations, and the way that they were established, the funding and the profits that are generated, get distributed back to individual shareholders. So it's a very different system.

Now, all of the corporations have an education foundation or some kind of component where there is funding that goes back to students in the form of scholarships and that sort of thing. But again, it's a very individual kind of benefit. And so I think there's this inherent tension between how the corporations are set up and how they relate to their own membership, versus that of our tribal communities, who are more collectively focused.

In the past, we've seen a lot of tensions that have arisen between tribal governments that have really strong positions on resource development, and concerns about certain projects that that could endanger the water, the land, the way of life for people that depend on subsistence, people that are inherent ancestral stewards of these places. But then we also sometimes have regional corporations where they are in the business of growing and of generating profit for shareholders, and they get involved in resource development projects that sometimes are contrary to the tribes. So we have these inherent tensions that are just sort of built within the structures of the organizations that we have. And the relationship between the two works better in some areas and less so in others. So it's really kind of a difficult question – what can the corporations do to sort of work better, more mutually and beneficially? I don't really know, but I do think that those inherent tensions exist, and they will likely always exist, unless some structural changes happen.

What’s the most important lesson that you learned from older generations?

I would say two things. One, my uncle was the first traditional chief of the TCC region. One of the things he always shared was: live a good life. And he associates that with making sure that you're connected back with your home community and with your culture – whatever that looks like to you. But according to his perspective as an elder, that's how someone lives a good life – to be in service to your people, to have that connection intact. And it's a very difficult thing when you're in an urban environment. A lot of our young people out migrate from our communities to be able to get jobs and raise their family in an urban setting. And it gets more and more difficult sometimes to get back to the places that we call home. But making that an intentional effort is really important – whatever that looks like for you.

The other advice is to always remember the values that our people have operated from for generations. One of those values is respect. We hear that a lot. But what does it really mean? And how do you put respect into practice every day, especially in a Western world that's very individualized, that's very capitalist? How do we walk in that world and still adhere to the values and practice the values that our Indigenous peoples have always had? We don't have a lot of training specifically for our young people to understand that. It's part of your individual life teachings – if you have the opportunity to work with elders that pass that knowledge on. But it's really important. If there's anything that defines us as Indigenous peoples, I think it's our values. And so as long as those values stay intact and in practice, they will guide us through any amount of change that our people will endure into the future.

Do you have any advice for younger generations?

It's really important to spend some time and energy on developing their identity. I work a lot with young Alaska Native people that didn't have the benefit of having experiences in their village or being around elders or being immersed in that kind of an environment. And they yearn for it. For most of the young people I've worked with, it's a yearning that starts to develop as they get older. They crave it. And sometimes they don't have that access, or they don't meet people that can help them build that identity. It creates more confusion and more of a sort of loss for them. So it's really important if they have that yearning, to really make an intentional effort to get connected with people that are willing to be mentors to guide them. Because that identity formation is going to be what aligns them in their future – that makes a difference in how they show up in the world. And that is going to be really important for them to live that good life that my uncle talks about. I think more than anything, that's going to be really important.

We experienced contact a lot later than the Lower 48 tribes. My own mother, who's 83, was literally born out in our traditional lifestyle, in a tent at minus 50 below in December, with just her mom and a midwife. I mean, think about that – that was just 80 years ago, and now my generation is having a very different experience – I think of my life, having three degrees, including a PhD, and working in higher administration in an academic setting. The amount of change that we've endured in just two generations is incredible. But it also means that my generation is kind of the last to experience through our elders, the traditional way of life that our people have experienced for thousands of generations. So we're in a unique position of being that bridge between what our people are going to know and experience moving forward. There is a need for us to share all of what we know, learned and heard about firsthand from the elders that actually lived that life. We're at a really important point in our collective experience as Alaska Native people, to really make sure that some of those values, those teachings, those traditions as way of life, are carried forward – even though the context with which we operate socially, politically, economically, everything has shifted dramatically. That’s a responsibility that I think we all have. And that's going to be how we see our people navigate the challenges of tomorrow.

Is there one particular program or initiative related to Alaska Native tribes or Alaska Native corporations that you view as a success?

I would say that the tribal health care system is probably one of the clearest examples of success. When you look at the challenges of the Indian Health Service prior to the tribal entities taking over, the services were very minimal. They were lacking – even in our urban communities, where we have a much larger tribal population. Our physical and staffing capacity was very small. So tribes started to get more involved with IHS negotiations and taking over those services. Just a couple of years ago, our tribes authorized an expansion. So for the very first time, starting next year, we're going to be able to offer oncology services to our beneficiaries here, and we're going to have a surgery center.

The growth has been huge, and so has the funding that comes with it. Our clinics in our rural communities are much more sophisticated and advanced than they've ever been. So even though there are still needs that are not being met, and there are quality control issues that we're constantly monitoring, we are in a much different state than at any point in our past. And that's a sign of huge success on the part of Alaska tribes and tribal health organizations.

What is something you think people should know about you, your community, or your work?

My tribes, along with Alaska, have really been at the forefront of the struggle to get our self determination recognized and to be able to actually enforce it. You can look back on the history of case law in Alaska, that demonstrates that tribes have really been at the helm all along or pushing other governments to sort of recognize our rights. I'm really proud of that history. Arctic Village and Venetie have really been pioneers in many legal cases and policy changes. It’s important to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of all of the people that have come before us. So when we get a win in regards to self determination, it's not just our win. It's about all the people who sacrificed and worked toward that moment, that came before us, and also those that will hopefully benefit from it in the future.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

I think one important thing is for people to be really clear that being a shareholder of an ANCSA corporation, and being a tribal member of a federally recognized tribe, are two very different things. We’ll ask some of our younger generation, “What tribe are you from?” or they’ll have to include that information on a form, and they’ll say “Oh I’m Doyon, or I’m Sealaska.” We see this a lot at the University and other places. They're not even clear in their own minds that tribal membership is something different than corporation membership. And I think that's something that kind of goes back to the identity piece. You can be both – you can absolutely be a shareholder of a corporation and a tribal member at the same time. But one doesn't replace the other, you know?

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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 stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 contribution today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.