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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

The Chugach mountains frame Anchorage’s skyline, full of the city’s tallest buildings. Stamped on these corporate buildings: Doyon, Ahtna, Calista, Afognak. All names of Alaska’s Indigenous languages.

The unique buildings belong to the Alaska Native corporations, companies formed in 1971 by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, a complex legislation which permanently changed the state’s legal landscape.

ANCSA’s primary aim was to settle Alaska’s Indigenous land claims. Along the way, it also established 12 corporations that oversaw more than 44 million acres of Alaska Native land. Alaska Natives became the shareholders and executives for the companies, typically enrolling in the one that corresponded to their cultural and geographic background on their ancestral homelands. In addition to portions of their communities’ ancestral lands, the Alaska Native corporations were given approximately $1 billion, and instructed to use the resources to look after the economic, social, and cultural well-being of their people.

Today, these corporations are some of the leading drivers of the Alaskan economy.

In 2018, Alaska Native corporations cumulatively reported more than $10.5 billion in revenues and accounted for almost 50 percent of the rankings in the Alaska Business’ listing of the top 49 corporations in the state.

They continuously take the top 10 spots in the state’s corporate rankings and have generated around $700 million toward Alaskan payrolls, according to 2018 data from the ANCSA Regional Association.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act changed legal policy, land ownership, and economic structure for Alaska Natives. But it also completely transformed the general Alaskan economy. In short, it’s a piece of legislation that significantly impacted all Alaskans, Native and non-Native.

“It’s had a huge impact on Alaska and everyone who lives in the state,” explained Roy Huhndorf, Yup’ik. “The corporations are our homegrown engines of the economy. And all Alaskans should be proud of this.”

The striking statistics only demonstrate a small fraction of the impact. Alaska Native corporations also have a rare setup from an economic analysis perspective.

Most of the larger corporations within the state are headquartered elsewhere. At the end of the day, the revenue they generate through industries like oil and construction, gets sent out of state, supporting executives and economies based in the Lower 48.

The 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act logo for Indian Country Today's ANCSA 50 project. (Illustration by Holly Mititquq Nordlum, Indian Country Today)

The Alaska Native corporations do the exact opposite — many of their subsidiaries are based outside of Alaska, in other states within the continental U.S. Revenue is generated there, and then sent back to Alaska, where it goes to executives based in the state, local Alaska Native shareholders, and community initiatives through the corporations’ non-profit arms. It’s a rare economic pattern, which Alaskan Department of Labor economist Neil Freid calls the “reverse colonial model”

“This means the profits and often the investments are going to stay more local, and therefore have a big multiplier effect on the economy,” Freid said.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t operations in the state as well. Many corporations are involved with natural resource development, including oil production, mining, and logging.

In fact, the history of ANCSA and Alaska’s oil industry are intertwined. Oil production couldn't begin until Indigenous land claims were settled, and Alaska Native corporations oversee much of the land and operations that produce oil. Both industries have grown up together, so it can be hard to separate the impact or success of one apart from the other. There was a clear economic boom during the 1970s, both due to new investments in the state, like the roughly $1 billion that came from ANCSA, and the oil rush.

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But a shared past doesn’t mean that their futures are completely linked as well.

As extractive natural resource production begins to shift over to more renewable sources of energy and Alaskan oil production starts to decline, the Alaska Native corporations will be even more critical to the state’s economy, says longtime Alaskan business journalist, Tim Bradner.

While these examples might be the most visible stream of revenue for Alaskan community members, the corporations’ operations extend throughout all regions of the U.S., and even in other parts of the world.

For example, Gana-A’Yoo, a village corporation in Interior Alaska which serves around 1,200 shareholders, has operations all the way in Antarctica. It’s shareholders are encouraged to apply for the positions, and get first priority for any of the in-person roles.

“There is no doubt that they are a significant player in the Alaskan economy. Their importance just seems to continue to grow, and their presence seems to grow as well. And, they are local institutions from the bottom to the top — Alaska doesn't really have that otherwise,” Freid said.

ANCs have a hand in many parts of the Alaskan economy, and are projected to only become more important to the state in the coming years. But some Alaskans believe this point has been overlooked and undervalued.

“If the 50th anniversary says anything, it's that we are still very misunderstood,” said Huhndorf, who was one of the initial CEOs of Cook Inlet Region, Inc. “Not only in regards to having received our own land back in a recognized form, but on our impact to the overall economy of Alaska. No one talks about that and I think we're very misunderstood – honestly ignored is the right word for it. We’re very ignored.”

So what happens when you make a transformation overnight?

If you ever wanted to see what would happen if a community rapidly transformed its economy in a few years, ANCSA is probably one of the most recent and wide scale examples to look at. A rapid economic transformation to this degree is bound to impact society in more ways than profit statistics alone can reflect. Some of the ANC’s economic impacts are less tangible, but arguably just as significant.

One example is the Alaska Native corporations’ impact on Alaska’s political landscape.

“In 1965, Alaska Natives were definitely on our way to becoming the next economic underclass and staying in that role, with no significant political social muscle,” said Paul Ongtooguk. “By 1990, you’ve got governors who are speaking to the Alaska Federation of Natives, you’ve got multinational banks and other big corporations that are trying to play nice to Native corporations.”

After ANCSA, Alaska Native corporations had the financial power and economic leverage to further impact the state’s politics, or at the very least, make sure they weren’t completely sidelined.

“It was a political transformation that really elevated Alaska Native interests, primarily Alaska Native corporate interests, but Alaska Native interests as well,” he said.

Considering the current set up of the U.S. campaign system, this change makes sense. According to Pew Research Center, money’s role in American politics has steadily increased since the 1970s, when the Citizens United Supreme Court case permitted the use of super PACs. Corporations play a large part in this trend – in 2021, research by the non-profit Open Secrets demonstrated that 87 percent of lobbying expenditures came from corporations, with businesses spending around $2.7 billion on political donations in that year alone.

Another impact, often overlooked, was local talent development, both in terms of jobs and education.

“ANCSA’s role in developing the human resources of this state has been way underreported,” Bradner said.

Through their non-profit arms, Alaska Native corporations have contributed more than $107 million towards scholarships since they were established in 1971, benefiting more than 54,000 individual Alaska Native shareholders and descendents. This sizable investment is responsible for the education of thousands, many of whom return to Alaska and apply their skillset to the local economy, creating a domino effect of human resource development. The corporations also provide support for technical training, such as welding and carpentry.

“It’s been a really important tool in helping educate our people, not just through college scholarships, but by providing funding for a number of options and opportunities,” said Jennifer Fate Velaise, Koyukon Athabascan.

Then there is the job impact. The Alaska Native corporations employ over 15,000 Alaskans, according to 2018 data from the ANCSA Regional Association.

In theory, Alaska Native corporation shareholders are supposed to receive priority for roles within the organization. This is clearly happening to some degree. Most of the Presidents leading the 12 regional corporations are Alaska Native, as well as shareholders of the businesses they run. Many other management roles are also filled by Alaska Natives, and most of the corporations provide internship opportunities for young shareholders which serve as pipelines to entry level positions.

“It's been an incredible source of employment for Native Alaskans – at all levels, from leadership positions, all the way down to all positions that exist in the company,” Freid said.

However, the department of labor doesn’t have data on the specific number of Alaska Native corporation jobs that go to Alaska Natives. Over the years, many of these jobs have also become sought after positions for non-Native Alaskans as well. Some Alaska Natives believe the corporations could do more to ensure that job opportunities are going to the company’s shareholders first.

Debates aside, ANCSA undeniably promoted business career opportunities in the Alaska Native community.

Before ANCSA passed, there was one Alaska Native with a MBA, says Paul Ongtooguk, Inupiaq, the former Director of Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 50 years later, a career in business is a familiar path — many Alaska Natives have gone to work for their corporation, and geared their education towards business to prepare for the role.

“Now we have a lot of people who went and got their MBAs at top business schools – Stanford, Wharton, Harvard,” he said. “I mean just look at it with our CEOs in the younger generation, they are much better prepared Alaska Natives for business.”

Huhndorf was part of the initial generation that made the abrupt switch from subsistence living. He was born in the small Interior Alaskan village, Nulato, during the 1940s, and was raised practicing a subsistence lifestyle like his community had done for thousands of years. He moved to Anchorage when he was a young adult, and recalled discussions about the looming land settlement throughout the city.

“This was a struggle for the land we had used and occupied for many, many generations – hundreds and thousands of years,” he said. “We felt acutely that the land was what we needed.”

Business was never in the forefront of these early land settlement considerations. But Huhndorf said he and many of his peers wanted to avoid further BIA oversight in their life and over their lands, and as a result, didn’t push for a treaty settlement option.

“We wanted more freedom than that. It was too much reliance on what the U.S. government and BIA says you can and can’t do,” he said. “So somebody came up with the idea of corporations. It wasn’t a perfect idea. But it allowed us to have the freedom we wanted over our lands, and it created a whole new path in our community.”

After the bill passed, older community members urged Huhndorf to get involved with the young organizations. In 1975, he was elected to be the president of CIRI, one of the 12 newly created Alaska Native corporations. With no previous experience running a multimillion dollar corporation, Huhndorf enrolled in night classes about accounting, finance, and business management, to add to his on the job education.

Under his leadership, CIRI’s assets grew from $32 million to $600 million, establishing it as one of Alaska’s largest companies.

It’s an incredible story, and one that many of the other initial Alaska Native CEOs can relate to – all encountered an extremely steep learning curve amidst rapid corporate growth, with almost no previous experience related to corporate management. While some of the 12 regional corporations encountered periods of uncertainty and profit dips, especially earlier on, they all eventually gained their footing, and today lead the state’s economy.

“We just thought of it as something we had to do,” said Huhndorf. “But I guess we turned out to be a pretty astute business bunch.”

In the early days, he sought out advice from outside lawyers, accountants, and consultants. Their expertise was definitely helpful, he said. But throughout his first years as President, he says it was often the lessons he had learned from elders that guided his approach to business management.

“We share and we respect, and we feel emotion about hardship undergone by other people around us. And to me, those are all vital elements of leadership,” Huhndorf explained. “The whole business of leadership really is heavily embedded in elders' advice.”

The emphasis on leadership is still present today.

“If there is a future out there, it's the continued development of Native leadership. We’ve got it in our genes,” he said. “The sky's the limit for people of Alaska Native descent.”

Jennifer Fate Velaise, Koyukon Athabascan, is from the generation after Huhndorf, and is a part of the post-ANCSA, Alaska Native MBA surge that Ongtooguk described.

Growing up, she remembers her mom, aunties, and uncles getting involved with the corporations just after ANCSA passed. She’d be doing her school work, and her mom would be doing accounting for their village corporation, Baan O Yeel Kon, at the table next to her.

“I’d say, ‘What are you doing mom?’ And she'd say ‘accounting’, then I'd say, ‘oh, that sounds so boring’,” she jokingly recalled. What stuck out to Fate was the reason behind the accounting - her mom always emphasized that it was needed to make informed decisions for their village corporation, which was in turn tied to their land ownership and community well-being.

Today, Fate is an elected board member for Doyon, the regional corporation for Interior Alaska. She has previously worked for corporations based in the Lower 48 as well, such as the media giant 20th Century Studios. From her perspective, another major difference between other companies and Alaska Native regional corporations, is the ANC’s focus on and incorporation of cultural values.

“We’re a double bottom line company. Doyon’s mission statement is to provide for the economic, social and cultural well being of our shareholders,” she said. “So the way I always think about our Native corporations is that they were among the first social impact companies in the U.S. – they were very cutting edge and progressive in that sense.”

Due to the fact that Alaska Native corporations make up the state’s top companies, Fate believes it has allowed them to incorporate some of their cultural values in the way the state runs in general. If one looks beyond state comparisons to the rest of the U.S., there is even a larger distinction – Alaska Native corporations seem to have been some of the nation’s first ESG companies.

“It sort of changed the narrative in the state itself, that all these Alaskan companies have been doing an ESG approach long before the rest of the country was even aware of what that was,” she said. “I think it somewhat changed the value system of the whole state.”

It’s an effect she doesn’t think should be downplayed. In the years before ANCSA passed, Fate recalls a lot of pushback from those outside of the community who considered the settlement unfair and unproductive.

“I don't think they foresaw how ANCSA would benefit the overall society, not just the Native community – but we've also greatly benefited non-Native hiring and economic opportunity for everyone in the state.”

Like Fate, Huhndorf recalls tense moments leading up to the land settlement. When he first moved to Anchorage from his village in the 1950s, discrimination against Natives was blatant and overt. Times have changed since then, but not fully.

“In the current day, discrimination is more subtle and underground,” he said. “But there's always that prejudice. And I think it sometimes partly manifests itself in this non recognition of the impact of ANCSA corporations.”

Within the span of a few decades, Alaska Native regional corporations became multimillion dollar companies that ran operations across multiple industries and employed thousands. Considering these facts, as well as their unique setup and continued relevance, Huhndorf had assumed that there would have been significantly more research about the corporations.

But he has been surprised to find that research institutes like UAA’s ICER don’t have recent studies on it, while continuously publishing updated articles about other Alaskan industries.

“I always think about the studies that tout the oil companies – ‘look at the 2500 jobs on the North Slope’. Well our health corporation alone employs 2700 people. And just one regional corporation through its extended companies in the Lower 48 employ many more people than that, and then bring the money back home,” he said. “So I don't know what the basis is for ignoring it.”

Future of the Alaskan Economy 

Fifty years since these unique businesses were first established, they have become certifiably intertwined with all aspects of the Alaskan economy. Today, they are deeply rooted foundations of the state’s economic model, making them important not only for Alaska Native peoples’ future, but also for the state of Alaska itself.

However, their continued role isn’t guaranteed. As Alaska Native corporations, they also have to take into consideration factors that other corporations don’t, such as blood quantum debates, shareholder enrollment declines, cultural values and community battles over the land they own.

It makes one wonder: what would happen if an Alaska Native corporation went bankrupt, or if multiple began to seriously decline?

It’s difficult for long-time Alaskan economists like Bradner and Freid to imagine an answer to the hypothetical question — but one thing is certain, it would be an extremely noticeable change.

“It would have a very large impact on the state because a lot of Alaskan businesses would just simply no longer exist,” Bradner said. 

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