Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on Alaska Native identity as part of Indian Country Today’s project on the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow was born in December 1971, a few days after the enrollment cutoff for the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

“We grew up together!” she joked.

The slight difference in days meant that Medicine Crow, Tlingit and Haida, didn’t receive shares in her regional Alaska Native corporation, while her older sister did — an arbitrary date determining who was an Alaska Native for ANCSA purposes. The situation didn’t bother her too much growing up, but it does exemplify the type of variance and enrollment differences that can occur across Alaskan regions, generations, and even within families.

‘Hashtag’ complicated

Examples like this aren’t unique to Medicine Crow.

When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed into law in 1971, it was intended to settle Indigenous claims to land and resources, such as fish, game and oil. Some at the time viewed it as an attempted termination bill. Others say the legislation was not created to take the place of tribes, and no part of it was designed with the intention of creating another organization to designate who was considered Alaska Native — such as a certificate of degree of Indian blood card or tribal enrollment might. 

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)

But given that original shareholders had to be one-quarter Alaska Native or more to enroll, the very setup itself created another system of Indigenous belonging and grouping.

“It was an unintended consequence of ANCSA,” said Robin Thompson, Inupiaq. “The Native corporations weren’t really meant to have anything to do with identity, even though we can’t separate the two now.”

The result is a multilayered Indigenous landscape in modern Alaska. Depending on different factors, an Alaska Native could be an enrolled citizen of their tribe, village corporation, and regional corporation. They could be enrolled in their regional corporation, but not their tribe. They could be enrolled in different corporations or tribes than their siblings are. And as is the case across so many Native communities, due to blood quantum rules, displacement, and adoption, they may have grown up immersed in their Alaska Native culture, but are unable to enroll in a tribe or an Alaska Native corporation.

“We were hashtag ‘it’s complicated’ long before Facebook,” said Medicine Crow, who is now president and CEO of First Alaskans Institute, a non-profit dedicated to empowering Alaska Native communities. 

It's certainly a complicated question. How do Alaska Native corporations, a recent invention, impact something as fundamental as cultural identity? And how do they interact with heritage, tribal belonging, and the million other factors that shape anyone’s Indigenous upbringing?

In numbers alone, the answer isn’t simple. There are 11 overarching Alaska Native cultural groups, over 200 tribes, more than 50 dialects, 13 regional corporations, and approximately 200 village corporations — potentially creating thousands of unique experiences, perspectives, and enrollment variations. And these numbers don't take into account other circumstances that can affect enrollment opportunities, cultural connection, and overall identity, such as whether one grew up outside of Alaska, in rural Alaska, or in urban Alaska.

(Related: The modern treaty: protecting Alaska Native land, values)

It gets further tangled by enrollment restrictions. Unlike typical corporations, shares cannot be bought or sold. In order for someone born after the original enrollment date to become an ANCSA shareholder, they either have to inherit shares, be gifted shares, or be part of a corporation that opened enrollment to “afterborns” — a local term for those born after the 1971 deadline, such as Medicine Crow, and a growing population of young Alaska Natives. The setup also means non-Native people can inherit shares and become part of a Native corporation. Today, only six of the twelve corporations have voted to open up their enrollment to those born after the deadline.

“I do think this can cause some tension between original shareholders and afterborns, especially when it comes to passing down shares,” said Delaney Naruyaq’ Thiele, Dena'ina Athabascan and Yup'ik.

Delaney Naruyaq’ Thiele, Dena’ina Athabascan and Yup’ik, was raised in Anchorage. She is not tribally enrolled, but is a shareholder in her regional corporation. She felt most connected to her culture when she was at her grandpa's village in Alexander Creek, and strengthened this connection when she began beading. (Photo courtesy of Delaney  Naruyaq’ Thiele)

Cultural identity, familial ties, engaging with your heritage — none of this is unique to Indigenous people, and it is often part of anyone’s coming-of-age journey, Native and non-Native. But for Alaska Natives, they now had the added layer of dealing with the federal government and Alaska Native corporations that dictated core aspects of their identity.

“When it comes to understanding your own identity, every person is screaming for it in those formative years, from age probably 13 to 18, and even after,” Thompson said.

Most Indigenous Alaskans listed a combination of traditional art, community, and ancestral land as elements that shaped their cultural identity. Some felt the corporations helped facilitate this. Others didn’t. But all pointed to areas where Alaska Native corporations and identity intersected.

“It’s a really diverse space,” Medicine Crow said. Through her work with the First Alaskans Institute's fellowship program, she interacts with a wide range of young Alaska Natives. Their experiences with identity vary greatly, she said. “Depending on where they're from, and if their families are involved, you see people either feeling really connected or really disconnected from the (Alaska Native corporations).”

Where are you from?

“Where are you from?” It’s a question many Native people know well, and another way of asking which community you belong to. For an Alaska Native person, the question can be answered several ways like where you physically live now, where you grew up, where your family originated, or what culture you identify with the most.

“When people want me to explain my Native side ... It’s like, ‘Have you got a flowchart? Do you have any magic markers?’ Because it's going to be funny, it's going to be a lot,” joked Nathan McCowan, Tlingit and Aleut.

While many wouldn’t list their Alaska Native corporation as a major influence in their cultural upbringing, it's a different story when it comes to introductions. A few decades after ANCSA passed, some have observed that more people are starting to cite their corporation as an identifier, in addition to or sometimes in the place of their tribe.

“I think most Alaskan Natives start with their cultural identity. And then they'll move on to the next layer of identity, which is some mixture of corporate and tribal — where are you enrolled tribally, where are you enrolled corporate wise?” said McCowan, who is tribally enrolled in Alaska and Canada, a shareholder in two regional corporations and a shareholder in two village corporations. He also serves as the president and CEO of St. George Tanaq Corporation, the village corporation for the Unangax people of St. George Island, and as the chair of the Alaska Native Village Corporations Association, which represents all 176 village corporations in Alaska.

Alaska Native corporation land boundaries and the Alaska Native languages in their regions. The corporations correspond with traditional cultural groups, as shown by the map. (Map by Gary Holton, Alaska Native Language Center)

Medicine Crow noted that in her own interactions, people mainly state their overarching cultural group, such as Tlingit or Athabascan, when introducing themselves.

However, there was an exception to this. During the self-identification segment of the U.S. Census, Medicine Crow saw that many people listed their regional corporation in the space that requested tribal affiliation.

“That speaks to me, in terms of potential impacts on people's identity. The census is self-identification, and so people get a chance to kind of break down what they feel best represents that. And in that space, there's lots of folks who write down the name of a corporation versus the name of their tribe,” she said, drawing upon her past census outreach work.

For many, it goes back to having something concrete to point to.

Ayyu Qassataq, Inupiaq, spent 20 years working in roles related to Indigenous education and advocacy. During that time, she observed that many students named their Alaska Native corporation as the main cultural identifier. It’s something she hadn’t seen as much in older generations.

“I can't tell you how many times when I would ask what cultural group they belong to, such as Yup’ik, Inupiaq, or Gwich'in, and the response would be, ‘I'm not really sure. But I think I'm Calista. Or I don't really know, but we’re Doyon,’” she said.

Ayyu Qassataq, Inupiaq, is a tribal citizen from Unalakleet. She was not a Native corporation shareholder growing up, but recently asked her mom to gift her shares so she could become more involved in her regional corporation. She felt most connected to her culture through land and community. (Photo courtesy of Ayyu Qassataq).

This shift could have to do with the changing demographics of recent Alaska Native generations. Alaska tribes are tied to the village one’s family is from, rather than an overarching region or cultural group. This has led to a more decentralized Indigenous landscape (when compared to the Lower 48) with 231 remote tribes for only 130,000 people, spread across a land mass one-quarter the size of the continental United States.

Fifty years ago, it was more common for someone to have ties to a singular village, which they could easily name for census purposes, introductions, etc. Today, increased numbers of Alaska Natives are multiracial, live in urban Alaskan areas, reside out of state, or have parents from two different villages. These complicating factors make it difficult for some to enroll in village tribes. In these instances, it would make sense that people were more comfortable identifying with a Native corporation.

(Related: Cheat sheet: Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act 101)

That contrast with tribes in the Lower 48 can sometimes be on display. Although today tribal sovereignty is just as important in Alaska, McCowan found tribal identification more pronounced in the Lower 48, partly due to the different histories and landscapes. 

Alyssa London, Tlingit, witnessed this too, and tried to emphasize the distinct set up in her homelands when talking to people who were unfamiliar with it. “The identity of being a part of so many things, even though it's one community, could be confusing to others,” she said.

For Alaska Natives who were unable to become a shareholder, it was missing out on that solid identifier that sometimes stung.

“I do think just not having that concrete ability to say, ‘Oh, I am a shareholder or you know, I do have a tribe, or I do have a village corporation,’ I think has been definitely confusing, for the most part,” Thiele said.

Ricky Tagaban’s robe during its First Dance ceremony at the Sealaska Heritage Institute on June 22, 2020. Tagaban is a tribal citizen, but is currently not able to be a shareholder in his regional or village corporation. He felt most connected to his culture through art and the community. (Photo Courtesy of Annie Bartholomew, The Juneau Empire)

Ricky Tagaban, Tlingit, agreed. Tagaban is from Juneau and a tribal citizen, but is currently not able to be a shareholder in his regional or village corporation. He felt closest to his culture through traditional weaving and the community he formed around it.

“I've reconciled, sort of the feeling of not being Native enough because I don't qualify for shares. Because I know the work that I do, and I know my connection to my community, how important they are to me. It helps me cope with that kind of reality that I won't be a shareholder unless someone dies and gifts me shares,” Tagaban said.

‘Bullied’ for being Native

Qassataq grew up between Anchorage and the village Unalakleet, in northwest Alaska. In the urban hub Anchorage, she encountered one of the more painful forces that can shape identity: she was repeatedly bullied for being Native.

“It made me want to be invisible,” she recalled. But this feeling faded when she was able to return to her homelands. In the summers, she would go out to her grandparents' fish camp in the Whaleback Mountains near Unalakleet. It was here, near the tundra and rushing nearby river, that she forged a resilient sense of self and responsibility to her community.

“It was the things that I learned with my grandparents about our ways of life that helped me stay strong. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those were some of the most formative years of my life.”

Unalakleet, where Qassataq grew up.

For many people, the connection with their ancestral lands was the strongest element of their cultural upbringing.

“Just being able to be out on the ocean and in the forest, those are the things that really shaped my identity,” Medicine Crow said, who is from the village Kake. 

This dynamic isn’t exclusive to Alaska Natives who grew up in Alaska, either.

“You can be raised far away from Alaska as an Alaska Native and still feel connected to the land,” Medicine Crow said. She had witnessed this dozens of times through her work with First Alaskans Institute, where Indigenous Alaskans who had grown up in the Lower 48 were able to return to Alaska through the organization’s policy fellowship.

Here then, lies the catch 22: if the Alaska Native corporations own almost all Alaska Native lands, and these ancestral lands are what ties people to their culture, then the two concepts — Native corporations and heritage — are inadvertently linked, for better or for worse.

“I think that causes our identity to be much more influenced by a connection to a corporation, which does hold our land, which is different from Lower 48 tribal members,” London said.

The relationship between land, culture, and Alaska Native corporations only becomes more apparent when one looks at the inverse situation: Alaska Native communities excluded from ANCSA.

Nicole Hallingstad, Tlingit, is part of an advocacy group called Alaska Natives Without Land. When ANCSA first passed, five southeast communities — Haines, Tenakee, Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg — were left out of the legislation, and still to this day don’t own their ancestral lands.

The impact of this omission on identity is extensive, Hallingstad says, who has been raising awareness about the issue for 25 years.

“I’ve seen it and I’ve heard it,” she said. “There is such a deep connection to place among Alaskan Native peoples, that not having a legal claim to the land through ANCSA makes people feel literally unrooted from places that they used to occupy and roam for thousands of years.”

She recalled one distraught woman who stood up at a meeting, crying and exclaimed: “For 50 years, we have been walking with our roots in our hands because we have no place to lay them down and let them grow.”

It was moments like this that convinced Hallingstad of the powerful relationship between identity and land, and by extension, Native corporations.

More than 1,000 miles north from the heavily forested lands that Hallingstad and others are fighting for, the icy tundras of the Arctic have a similar pull for its community. Thompson had experienced this significance firsthand. Her grandma was from Wainwright on the North Slope, making the Arctic her traditional lands. Normally, this would have made Thompson a shareholder of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation with the other Inupiat in the region. But when ANCSA was established, her dad was living in Fairbanks for work. She and her family ended up enrolling in Doyon, the regional corporation for the interior that typically serves Athabascan people.

Robin Thompson, Inupiaq, grew up between Fairbanks and the village Togiak. She is a shareholder in three regional corporations, but not the one that corresponds to her ethnic and cultural background, and she is not tribally enrolled. She felt connected to her culture through traditions and community.

“I have a very large family, like 45 first cousins. And all of us are enrolled in the wrong corporation,” Thompson said.

If it was just about the shares or the corporations, this would’ve been enough. But something felt different to her and many of her family members — while they technically received the benefits that Native corporations were supposed to provide, being part of the “wrong” corporation caused them to feel disconnected from their homelands. Many tried to appeal the process and re-enroll in Arctic Slope Regional Corporation instead of Doyon. When that was unsuccessful, Thompson said, some of them gave up their Doyon shares in protest.

“We were cut off from the ties of our original lands. And to me, that's a big part of the identity issue,” Thompson said. “I do feel very strongly that it's that spiritual thread, that tie to the land, that gives us a sense of that Native identity.”

Thiele had a related takeaway.

“We have these corporations that are for making money, while also being tied to our land, which is a huge identifying factor of Native people. It can be a confusing notion,” Thiele said.

Community and voice

London was raised in Seattle, far from her Tlingit relatives in the north. During her childhood, she was able to stay in touch with her Indigenous roots through family visits to Alaska, as well as culture camps, internships, and scholarships provided by her regional corporation.

“My interaction with my community was very influenced by my Native corporation and the services and opportunities that they provided to me, my siblings, and shareholders,” said London, who is a tribal citizen, enrolled in her regional corporation, and enrolled in her urban corporation. 

Aleut Corporation shareholders at an annual meeting.

Community was also a common theme in the conversation of Alaska Native corporations and identity. Much like the rest of ANCSA, it’s a complex topic. The regional corporations are for-profit businesses. However, they also provide community services, and the shareholders mostly consist of people from one’s cultural group and region. This means they are likely to be family, neighbors, and coworkers.

Some viewed the people and the organization as unrelated. Like London, Pakak Sophie Boerner, Inupiaq, was raised outside of Alaska. While she was able to reconnect with her heritage through the relationships she made in the general Alaska Native community, she said she didn’t encounter this through her corporation. With tribes, non-profits like First Alaskans Institute, and cultural activities such as beading or dancing, there were many ways to find Indigenous kinship. 

“While I appreciate what NANA does for the region, and what it has done for my family, I separate the corporations very much from the people,” she said.

(Related: Alaska Native corporations win COVID-19 aid case)

For others, the main importance was having a voice in the community.

Qassataq wasn’t a shareholder for most of her life. Growing up, she felt disconnected from her regional corporation, and said it didn’t have much influence on her. She sometimes viewed the politics of the boardroom as more divisive than uniting. In certain cases, tribes and corporations within the same community can be at odds with each other over issues such as natural resource development. The conflict can be both off-putting and discouraging. 

But as time went on, she began to see the corporations as institutions that played a part in determining the future health and wellbeing of the Alaska Native community and their homelands. Not being a shareholder suddenly had more drawbacks. 

“That's when I had conversations with my mom about gifting shares to me, so that I could become more involved and inform myself about the decisions that are being made within our region,” Qassataq said.

Importantly, she said that the fact that she had to ask her mother to reduce her own stake in the corporation in order to include her is problematic. 

"It is inherently inequitable for individual shareholders to have to divide their shares amongst their family in order to include our people. I believe that dynamic diminishes the potential strength of our corporation - we should instead include all of our people from birth so they are connected to and engaged in the decisions that affect our peoples' homelands throughout their lives."

Like in a normal company, shareholders in Native corporations get a say in the operations. They can vote for board members, attend meetings, and express their opinions to those in charge. But unlike your average corporation, the topics at hand aren’t just profits and yearly dividends. They also focus on plans for traditional land management, local employment opportunities, and cultural initiatives.

“It’s not about money, it's about being enrolled in a corporation and about having to have a say in it, and voting rights,” Thiele said.

Some of Thiele's beadwork, which has further strengthened her cultural identity. (Photo courtesy of AK Cloudberry Instagram).

One small share is all it takes to be able to become a voting member of a regional corporation. While the number of votes is based on how many shares one has, a single stock allows one to attend meetings, make comments, and run for board positions. In this lens, the 100 shares of an original enrollee carries similar weight to the few shares that a descendant might inherit.

Of course, there would always be members who would naturally want to be more involved, as is the case in any organization. To some, the shares were just that: stocks in a corporation.

“I have cousins who are shareholders who live in Las Vegas, and what the corporations are to them are some newsletters they get a few times a year and an annual report packet,” said McCowan.

But he had also witnessed instances where a share meant something more to people.

“People get one share in a corporation and can be brought to tears because their entire lives they've been on the outside wondering and wanting and needing something tangible to bolster and make their identity resonant,” he described.

London associated being a shareholder with a larger significance as well.

“It's given me this sense that I'm a part of something greater than myself. And I find a lot of purpose in that,” she said.

Identity? A multifaceted beast

“What is my identity?” asked McCowan. “Well, it's a multifaceted beast. I'm a shareholder. Citizen. I'm a [Tlingit] clan member. And each of those kind of coexist. None of them are subordinate. None of them are supreme.”

"We just have a different situation in Alaska...anything we can do to help people understand that," said Hallingstad, referring to the state's unique tribal and corporate combination.

Their answers aligned with many of the other interviewees. Fifty years after ANCSA became law, people were still evaluating how it impacts aspects of life beyond the economic sector it sprang out of.

“The dynamics of what happened to us — the consequences of federal laws — can feel very personal,” Medicine Crow said. “And this crux of identity, it's such a huge conversation across the country, not just in our Native community.”

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Up next, part 2: How young Alaska Native generations view the future of enrollment and corporate engagement. 

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 Solutions Journalism. Stay updated on ICT’s ANCSA project using #ANCSA50 and at https://indiancountrytoday.com/tag/ancsa-50.

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