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.
Kelsey Aigan Haake
The profile series continues with a legal voice from the next generation: Kelsey Aigan Haake.
Haake was born and raised in Utqiagvik, Alaska. As a tribal member of the Native Village of Barrow, and a shareholder of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation, she’s looking for ways to increase the strength and unity of all Alaska Native institutions, both tribal and corporate. The mom of three has a background in finance and a record of community leadership. She’s currently attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania, and plans to use her law degree to continue advocating for Alaska Native rights.
What motivated you to pursue this line of work?
The more intertwined I became with the tribes and Native corporations from a professional standpoint, the more I understood that we were still fighting. Fighting for our rights to hunt, struggling to keep the land promised to us, trying to keep our language in our schools, the list is infinite and ongoing. This fight is across multiple fronts, corporately and governmental, and this is all taking place while we are the most underrepresented minority in America. The federal government continues to renege on decades-old contracts, promises, and treaties. Seeing this happen has put a new vision at the forefront of my future. Like my Attata (great uncle) Etok Edwardsen, I need to be a fighter. I need to ensure our people do not lose their sovereignty and guarantee we are not forgotten. This is not a fight of weapons and bloodshed; it is a battle of words and laws and to do this we need to be armed appropriately. That is why I need to be an advocate and I think I can do that by being an attorney.
What is the most important lesson you learned from older generations?
We increase our power when we are united, and the resiliency a united front can have during hard times. We saw these aspects from our leaders during the formation of ANCSA. Our leaders only had one choice, to move forward for our people and do it together, or we would have never accomplished such a historic outcome.
What is a piece of advice you have for younger generations?
We all have a duty to better our people, we need to keep this duty at the forefront every day in our communities, tribes, or in our Alaska Native corporations. Our elders fought so hard for us, and we need to carry that fight on. It is our time to pick up the torch and light the way. Whether our duty is to be the best teacher, hunter, tradesman, nurse, physician, lawyer, or whatever else, remember to always give back in some capacity and be willing to teach others.
What is one word that comes to mind when you think of ANCSA?
Land-rights – I hyphenated it so does that make it one word? These land claims were at the forefront of our fight and continue to keep us rooted in our culture and ancestors. We still struggle to use our lands as we see fit. This limitation continues to keep us obligated and reliant on the federal government.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for the Alaska Native community to tackle in the next 50 years?
My inner financial planner is coming out with this question. I believe our biggest challenge is economic development within our villages. Our Native communities across the Alaska have issues with circulating money, this is because of the lack of a physical economy in our rural areas. For an economy to thrive, money should circulate 6-7 times before it moves out of the community. In our local economies now, money is not circulating at this rate, because there are not opportunities to spend it locally, which causes hardships. If we want our villages to prosper, we need to have more local businesses and utilize and support these local businesses. Thus, it does not matter how much money is being sent to our communities if we cannot keep the money there, we will not see a long-term effect. What matters is that money circulates through local hands and local businesses. Through this it will have the greatest impact. We can only do that by having more opportunities to spend the money in our communities with more local businesses.
What are some solutions that the community can work towards to address these challenges?
We need to assess what the needs are in each local community, this can only be done through local input as each community’s need could vary. This can be accomplished by creating rural community think tanks for business start-ups and offering grants and assistance in developing business plan formation for people in our village communities.
What is one initiative related to Alaska Native Corporations and/or Alaska Native tribes that you view as a success?
Alaska Native Village Corp. Association v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation/Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation. For the first time in years, our village and regional corporations across Alaska were genuinely united in a cause and understood the severity and importance of this case. We worked together as one for a common cause. As a result, we achieved something magnificent that could have very well gone the other way, which would have incredibly negative implications and a horrible lasting impact for our Native people in Alaska. While on the outside it appeared to focus on federal funding, the win was much bigger than this, it ensured that our native sovereignty was protected.
What would you like to see Alaska Native Corporations focus on more in the next few decades?
Our Alaska Native corporations have an incredibly tough job of simultaneously holding Native values at the forefront, incorporating them into a for-profit business, running a successful corporation, all while representing our shareholders. With shareholders spreading out across Alaska and beyond, representing them is becoming more and more daunting. Thus, with our shareholders spreading out across the country, we need more representation for all our shareholders, regardless of their geographic location. Furthermore, if ANCs do not move this way, it could be a potential liability for them, based on their unfair representation of the very shareholders they say they represent.
What is one of your favorite Alaska Native community/cultural memories?
My absolute favorite is our Nalukataq. Everyone is happy, excited, and sharing. It is a great time to see the community come together regardless of race, political views, or family squabbles. We all work together to feed the community, and to be a part of such a wonderful and vibrant atmosphere is truly one of my favorite things to attend. The highlight though, is that we get to eat our nikipiaq (Native food) all day for every meal.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
While we are the minority amongst minorities, we have an opportunity in front of us to bring together Alaska Natives. However, we need to be united in these endeavors, for if we do not stand together, we will fall apart. We need to work together to preserve our rights and expand upon the rights that are continuously taken from us, especially when it comes to our lands and waters.
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.
Our 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.