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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.

Sam Schimmel

"I have learned that I can’t change what has happened but I can influence what will happen moving forward. I have always refused to be a victim regardless of what has happened," says Sam Schimmel, a young Alaska Native who is known for his climate change advocacy. For the countdown's next profile, Schimmel emphasizes the need for subsistence protections and Alaska Native cooperation. 

Schimmel is Siberian Yupik from Gambell and Kenaitze Indian from Kenai, currently attending Stanford University. He serves as a Youth Advisory Board member for the Center for Native American Youth, the Vice Chairmen of the Arctic Youth Network, is on the NCAI Climate Action Task Force Committee and most recently authored Pillar 2 of the ATNI Tribal Review of the Congressional Action Plan on the Climate Crisis. 

Schimmel is also co owner of Ursus Alaska and Native Smoke, a fish company. Last year, he founded Operation Fish Drop as a response to the pandemic's affect on Alaska Natives. The program has been able to donate thousands of pounds of salmon to Alaska Natives living along the Yukon River after they suffered devastatingly low Salmon returns this last summer.

What motivated you to pursue this line of work?

Growing up between Sivuqaq (Gambell), Kenai, and Seattle I have always had to translate the way we see things as Indigenous peoples into language that can be understood by the wider western world. Because of the education my mother gave to me, our elders would have me serve as the translator between our Native ways of knowing and being when it came time to talk about our relationship to the land or sea. The choice to engage in advocacy is born out of the reality that the only way we are going to be able to continue to subsist as we have for thousands of years is if the importance of our subsistence and our relationship to our environment is understood by policy makers and the public.

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

The deterioration of mutual reliance. 50 years ago our Alaska Native leaders found common ground to work through and create ANCSA. Today it seems we are not acting as a collective group of Alaska Natives but rather as individual communities. The ability to stand together with a united voice is critical and will be the greatest challenge with climate change impacting all of our lands. We need to nurture our collective reliance on our lands and waters as that relationship has defined our existence since the beginning. As more of our tribal members and descendants move away from our villages and tribal lands we need to work smarter to maintain our connectivity. There always needs to be a direct path to our subsistence traditions.

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

I think that one of the greatest challenges ahead of our communities is going to be adapting to the effects climate change will have on our subsistence resources. Already across the state we are seeing the food security of villages being threatened by these changes. This year it was the communities on the Yukon who were barred from fishing because of poor salmon run returns, in years past my community in Gambell has been unable to harvest enough walrus to feed our community due to a lack of sea ice in our region. These types of occurrences are going to become more and more common as the impacts of climate change are felt.

In terms of goals for our communities I think that while climate change presents many challenges for our communities it also represents opportunity. I can’t remember if she was from Point Lay, or Atqasuk but an elder from there once told me that when she was growing up they ate a lot of caribou but they never saw moose. In recent years they haven’t been seeing as many caribou but they’ve started harvesting moose. This is the way we must look at climate change. We cannot have a singular focus on what is being lost. We need to have one eye towards history and tradition and one eye towards the future and the opportunities that it brings to our communities.

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

Taking a duplicative approach to education is critical. Native youth steeped in language, and culture maintain and nurture connectivity. Promoting, encouraging, and supporting our youth to excel in STEM will help create Native business owners and land owners. This will ultimately allow us greater control over our economy and politics.

When it comes to food security and subsistence I think that Tribes and Villages need to place their members in decision making positions, whether that be in elected offices, the Board of Fish, or the Board of Game. We need to foster our relationships with state and federal actors to ensure that as changes in our environment come about, regulations and resources allow us to continue traditional practices.

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

The Kenaitze Indian Tribal Educational Fisheries program has been an astounding success.

It provides salmon to elders and tribal family members. Modeling a traditional work ethic while passing down heritage and tradition has positively impacted every Kenaitze Tribal member. Our youth learn from our elders and community members and take agency in being culture bearers and providers. All Alaska Native Tribes and Villages would benefit from having similar programs.

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What would you like to see Alaska Native Corporations focus on more in the next few decades?

Subsistence.

Our Native Corporations need to leverage connections and dollars to support our continued connection to subsistence practices. This includes buying community boats, motors, gas, nets, and ammunition, among other needed resources to ensure our ability to subsist. We need to focus on grant writing and funding opportunities to create reliable and consistent support to access resources deemed necessary specific to each community for their subsistence practices.

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

Everyday I am reminded of memories and stories passed down to me and each day it seems that that memory is the most meaningful and important, even though they are always different. I think that is the gift from our elders, that when we most need the wisdom they shared, it shows up. That said today I am eating a piece of King Salmon I put up from the summer and I thought about when I was 4 or 5 and I was learning to set net with my Great Uncle Max. I had my Red Ryder BB gun and in between sets he put me in charge of keeping the seals out of the fish. He slowed down catching so that I could pick each fish out of the net. He made everyone special and we took care of it as if it were the only fish we would catch. The day started with the tides and finished in the smoke house and bringing fresh fish to family. The knowledge passed down I hold with me to this day, and every fish still feels that way each summer. I was immediately connected to community and there was enough to learn in that one day to fill a lifetime. From catching fish, to hunting seals, gathering cottonwood, putting up our native foods in our native ways, to feeding our families. I’ve been fortunate to have a lifetime of favorite memories.

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

Listen.

We listen before we talk. No matter who is speaking you always listen. My Apa, Estelle Oozevseuk went with me to the museum collections of our ancestor's artifacts. The curator told us all about what they thought they were used for and their significance. I knew as a young child that the curator was wrong and all I wanted to do was stop her and tell her so. Apa silently hushed me and let that person finish and then corrected her. She and others taught me not to waste energy fighting battles the wrong way. Look at a situation to understand how best to approach it and work tirelessly to accomplish what is needed.

Our youth need to listen more. We need to get more done.

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

Compromise

We didn’t get everything we wanted or needed when our elders first drafted ANCSA. But in the view of our elders we got as much as we could at the time. Our leaders had to compromise to insure we had something.

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

My family like so many Native families has experienced unimaginable traumas that are deeply rooted in efforts to assimilate our Native ways. Boarding schools, alcohol and substance abuse, and suicide are part of my history and life experience. I had no choice in this inheritance. I have learned that I can’t change what has happened but I can influence what will happen moving forward. I have always refused to be a victim regardless of what has happened. This helps me put my energy and thought into improving our collective Native experience. It is my focus and what drives and motivates the work I do.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I would like to thank everyone who has taught me and shared stories with me. Native and non-Native.

Thank you. 

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This story is part of a joint project between Indian Country Today, Alaska Public Media, and Anchorage Daily News 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 and the Solutions Journalism Network. Stay updated on ICT’s ANCSA project using #ANCSA50 and at https://indiancountrytoday.com/tag/ancsa-50.

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