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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.

Samuel Hiratsuka

Samuel Hiratsuka is a young Alaska Native affected by Indigenous policies in both Alaska and the Lower 48. It’s one of the reasons he is so passionate about federal Indian law. He is Navajo and Winnemem Wintu from Big Bend Rancheria on his mom’s side, and Aleut from Ekuk on his dad’s side. Hiratsuka was raised in Anchorage, and is a shareholder of Bristol Bay Native Corporation and Choggiung. After graduating high school, he set out for Washington, D.C., to work as a legislative correspondent for the Alaskan delegation, covering Indigenous affairs, housing, fisheries, oceans, and more. 

What motivated you to pursue this line of work?

My motivation has always come from my family - my mom in particular. She has been my principal teacher, mentor, advocate, and inspiration. Even before I was born, she was doing everything she could to make sure I was safe, healthy, and in a space where I could grow and flourish. As I have grown up, she has inspired me both directly in terms of the conversations we've had and the time we've shared together, but also indirectly when I see the trailblazing work she has undertaken in the field of circumpolar health. She was the first to teach me about the world's inequities and the responsibility we all have to remedy them. Really, it was her influence which inspired my curiosity with federal Indian law and policy.

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

A goal I have for the community in the next 50 years is greater federal and state support for, and Indigenous control of public safety systems in our Alaska Native villages. It is appalling to me that nearing 2022, dozens of our communities have no active public safety presence. Our victimization rates are the highest in the nation in metric after metric, and yet we lack the support and authority to do much of anything about it. I would like to see all of that change, and I believe it is within our power to make it happen.

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

I think there are a number of steps we can take to achieve my goal. In no particular order: I would appreciate a greater number of conversations about PL-280 and the effect it has had on curtailing tribal law enforcement, tribal court systems, and non-tribal governments' support of the aforementioned two initiatives. I would also be interested to see an expansion of cross-deputization in Alaska, along with the other tribal-specific suggestions noted in Kyle Hopkins' 2019 Anchorage Daily News article titled "Six ways to fix Alaska's law enforcement crisis". Additionally, I think that greater advocacy and action can and should be undertaken to ensure that the federal government, pursuant to the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act (as noted within footnote 117 of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' Report: Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans, page 33), provide greater administrative and financial support to our communities in order to assure our safety. Finally, I think that, should funding be available, greater investment can be made into our tribal courts and public safety institutions. These investments will increase our capacity to carry out the justice I hope we can deliver, and likely make any funding/support decision by a non-tribal partner easier to approve.

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

I have been really proud of the way in which Alaska Native tribes, via the tribal health entities, have stepped up to provide world-class healthcare to our communities in a way many Lower 48 tribes are seeking to emulate. While I recognize there are still tensions present within the system, the tribal healthcare system has seen unprecedented growth and success – all because of the community’s hard work and ability to exercise self-determination.

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

As the Chehalis case showed, I think there are still some points of ignorance as it pertains to the role, form, and function of Alaska Native corporations - especially in relation to tribes. To that end, I think it will continue to be important for Alaska Native corporations to work with tribes, particularly in the Lower 48, to ensure a less acrimonious relationship moving forward.

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

When I was in eighth grade, I was lucky enough to participate in the Rose Urban Rural Exchange Program, which allowed me and a select number of my classmates to travel out to Chevak for a week. It was the time of my life. I ate akutaq for the first time, did my fair share of Yup'ik dancing, and played a lot of basketball. I would love to go back one day.

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

I think the greatest lesson I have learned from older generations is to be confident in who I am and what I bring to the table. As far back as I can remember, my family has placed a premium on "using your words.” In subtle ways, my family pushed me to develop my own perspectives and be my own person, which I feel has helped me become a better leader, critical thinker, and community advocate.

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

One word that comes to my mind when I think about ANCSA is "visionary". The pioneers of ANCSA took on a project of enormous magnitude and helped shape the revolutionary system of federal Indian policy that we still rely upon today. Following the passage of ANCSA, many of these same pioneers became corporate leaders – a remarkable difference from the lives so many of our ancestors lived not too long before. Their continued leadership has left big shoes for my generation’s leaders to fill, and I can only hope we make them proud.

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

I chose to come to Washington, D.C. right out of high school to attend American University and learn more about federal Indian law and policy, recognizing that Congress has “plenary power” over Indian affairs (Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903)). Now, as I work in Congress, I am grateful to work on issues so close to my heart, and ever eager to learn more. Looking forward, I plan on going to law school and studying federal Indian law. Eventually, I want to head back home and help make my state, and my community, a more equitable place for all.

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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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