This is part 2 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.

Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

Pakak Sophie Boerner doesn’t have children yet. But the anxiety surrounding the Alaska Native corporate and tribal enrollment prospects of her future kids is already a real and present emotion in her life.

“I can teach them as much as I can, from my cultural perspective, but the exclusion that they'll probably feel because they're not part of any official or governmentally recognized community is very saddening to me,” she said. “I have this long family history, I have the connections that are physical and evidential, but in the long run, that means nothing.”

Boerner, Inupiaq, isn’t the only Indigenous Alaskan who feels this way.

In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement passed into law as a way to settle Indigenous claims to land and resources, such as fish, game and other natural resources. The legislation created 13 Alaska Native regional corporations and more than 150 village corporations, which were to oversee 44 million acres of land divided on traditional cultural lines. The newly formed organizations would be for-profit companies that would distribute the proceeds to shareholders. Individuals who were one-quarter Alaska Native or more would receive 100 shares in their regional corporation if they had enrolled before December 17, 1971. This decision inadvertently created another system of Indigenous grouping and belonging, much like one sees in tribes. It also meant that those born after the date, like Boerner’s future children, would be left out of the act.

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 identity component ... that was an unintended consequence of ANCSA. But it's there now,” said Robin Thompson, Inupiaq.

If the Alaska Native corporations had accidentally been placed into this additional role, the question was now: what next? did they now have a responsibility to help foster Alaska Native identity and heritage? 

It's a subject that weighs on many Indigenous Alaskans' minds, especially when looking forward to the future generations of shareholders. 

Thompson pointed out that there were several other organizations in the state that ran successful Alaska Native language, arts, and tradition programs. As for-profit companies, this would never be the regional corporations’ main goal, nor should it be their sole responsibility to take on. But she maintained that the corporations still had a part to play in relation to heritage and identity. 

“A lot of [associations] focus on building or strengthening the identity of people. So it has been done in the state, it's just not the job of corporations to do it… But the corporations currently have a responsibility to try to help and engage shareholders, especially people coming of age,” she explained.

(PART ONE: Alaska Natives’ complicated identities)

Her comments were echoed by others, particularly in relation to areas that the corporations did have direct power over, such as shareholder engagement, enrollment policies, and land stewardship.

“Alaska Native people have thousands of years of recorded successful stewardship over our own homeland. That's irreplaceable. So I think there should be responsibility because our ANCSA corporations make the decisions about our homelands that impact our peoples in perpetuity,” explained Ayyu Qassatuq, Inupiaq. “So the decisions that they make, shift our people's future trajectory."

“Congress explicitly mandated that the corporation's look after the economic, social and cultural well being of their shareholders. It's baked into ANCSA itself, it's baked into the very authorizing language of the Act,” said Nathan McCowan, Tlingit and Aleut.

Future of enrollment

As novel as the Alaska Native corporations may be, one of their largest looming challenges involves a concept that most Native American communities are familiar with: blood quantum and enrollment policies.

“We're the only group of people that have to think about: who do we marry? Who do we have our kids with if we want to keep our lands and our rights within our community? It is something that weighs heavily on a lot of my friends,” said Delaney Naruyaq’ Thiele, Dena'ina Athabascan and Yup'ik. 

Alaska Native corporations have to consider two questions to the future enrollment equation: 1) should they open enrollment to those who are at least one-quarter Alaska Native, but born after the original 1971 date, and 2) should they open enrollment to Alaska Natives with less than one-quarter blood quantum.

Liam Baker, 3, dances with the Minto Dancers at the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Liam Baker, 3, dances with the Minto Dancers at the Alaska Federation of Natives.

The question goes beyond individual impact, and cuts to the survival of the corporations themselves. The nation’s northernmost state has a unique Indigenous legal setup: Alaska Native regional corporations own traditional lands, while tribes have a sovereign relationship with the government. 

“I think about ANCSA as our way of holding on to our homelands. And that the corporations are tools by which we're able to do that,” La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, Tlingit and Haida, said.

This dynamic links the corporations to Indigenous lands, and the cultural significance that accompanies it. It also leads to fears that one day, this land ownership could be diminished.

As time goes on, and more descendents are unable to enroll, what happens to the size of the shareholder base? And if there are fewer and fewer shareholders, what happens to the corporations and the ancestral lands they oversee?

“At what point will our great grandchildren no longer see ANCSA as a land settlement to hold on to our lands, and rather see it as just a corporate endeavor by which we drive profit to distribute that wealth to shareholders? Because at that time, there's the disconnect, the severings will be complete — when our homelands just become a business mechanism,” Medicine Crow said.

To further complicate the issue, each of the 12 regions have approached the matter differently. There won’t be one sweeping decision that changes enrollment policies for Alaska Native corporations. Each village tribe, regional corporation, and village or urban corporation can make its own rules.

To date, six of the 12 regional corporations have opened enrollment to those born after the December 1971 cut-off date.

Other corporations have put the decision to a vote, but it didn’t pass. The hesitation partly stems from concern over the dilution of stocks. If a corporation opens enrollment, the same amount of profits will be shared among a larger number of people, reducing the amount original shareholders receive from their dividends. More votes would be available to cast, but it would diminish the weight of an individual’s voting power. And an increased shareholder population could raise the operating costs of the corporation, cutting into the overall revenue.

“The size of the pie remains the same; it is just sliced into smaller pieces,” wrote Sophie Minich, Athabascan, who is president and CEO of the regional corporation CIRI, in a 2015 statement on the topic.

For example, when the regional corporation Calista opened its enrollment to descendants, they had a shareholder population of 13,000. The decision created the potential for that number to triple to 43,000. As of 2020, there are now around 33,000 shareholders.

An audience of various Alaska Native generations, including Piiyuuk Olivia Shields, watches dancing at the Alaska Federation of Natives.

An audience of various Alaska Native generations, including Piiyuuk Olivia Shields, watches dancing at the Alaska Federation of Natives.

While the most outspoken advocates usually support open enrollment, surveys show there isn’t a general consensus in the community. In 2015, on the heels of Calista Corp voting to open enrollment, CIRI conducted a poll amongst shareholders to gauge interest in whether CIRI stock should be issued to descendants born after 1971. Forty-six percent of shareholders supported the idea, 35 percent opposed it and 19 percent were unsure. When asked to take it one step further, if they’d be willing to have their dividends reduced for new shares to be issued, 55 percent said no, and only 3 percent were strongly supportive of the idea. The results were clear — they did not open enrollment.

Perhaps most notably, the analysis exposed an unmistakable generational divide. Answers were highly related to age. Those most supportive of open enrollment fell in the 18-39 category.

“When I die, my kids are going to get my shares. It's an ongoing thing," Stanley Hoffman, a Yup’ik Calista shareholder, told the Anchorage Daily News in 2016 when his regional corporation was debating open enrollment policies. People like Hoffman view the current inheritance-based setup as fair, seeing as the shares don’t disappear, and can continue on in families down the line. But while Hoffman and others might plan to leave shares to their descendants, it isn’t guaranteed that everyone would do the same. This situation can create uncertainty for unenrolled Alaska Natives, who miss out on the employment opportunities, services, cultural programming, and dividends that the corporations provide. The exclusion can also leave some feeling left out of the larger Alaska Native community. 

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

In Nuiqsut on the north slope in the Arctic, the disparity has played out in a striking way. The small village of only 433 people is surrounded by oil rich lands, which their village corporation, Kuukpik, has been able to tap into. Subsequently, the corporations’ dividends have reached $30,000 — an amount that greatly exceeds the typical Alaska Native corporation dividend value. If Kuukpik were to open enrollment, that amount would decline with each new member. 

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“I believe there is a recognition among our shareholders that it is important to be as inclusive as we possibly can of our descendants,” said Minich, despite enrolled members’ hesitation to enroll more shareholders. Such corporations have sought out other methods for descendent inclusion. For example, CIRI keeps track of them on a registry, and offers the type of assistance given to shareholders when possible.

‘Colonial catch 22’

The question of open enrollment has been a hot-button issue for three decades, when Congress had the option to change ANCSA legislation regarding the topic in the 1991 amendments. For that reason, those in older generations are familiar with the conflict, with many spending years championing the cause. 

But the debate has only grown more complex for younger generations. For many, it seems that blood quantum requirements are shaping up to be the key battle of their age group, who are increasingly multiracial or from more than one tribe. The distinction means that they or their future children are more likely to have lower blood quantum amounts than previous generations, resulting in more enrollment barriers. Search the term on twitter, and one will find countless people voicing their concerns about the implications of blood quantum.

“As Native peoples, we inherit different stages of the fight to protect our ways of life. And I feel where we're at now is in the stage to ensure that all of our Native people are included — it's not in our nature to be exclusive,” Qassataq said.

Blood quantum laws have a long, controversial history in Indigenous communities. They were first enacted by the federal government as a way to establish citizenship for tribes, in which one was considered Native American based on the amount of Indigenous blood they had. 

“Blood quantum emerged as a way to measure ‘Indian-ness’ through a construct of race. So that over time, Indians would literally breed themselves out and rid the federal government of their legal duties to uphold treaty obligations,” said Elizabeth Rule, Choctaw Nation and Director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy, in an NPR interview. She calls it a “colonial catch 22.” 

Today, many tribes still use blood quantum as a way to determine citizenship. It’s up to the tribe to establish the fraction of blood needed for enrollment — usually this falls between one-quarter and one-eighth.

Although blood quantum is typically discussed in relation to tribes, it applies to Alaska Native corporations too. 

“I think it is the corporation's responsibility to address the blood quantum requirement. I think it’s past time to figure it out,” said Ricky Tagaban, Tlingit. Tagaban grew up in Juneau, and is a tribal citizen. Like many others in the younger generation of Alaska Natives, he isn’t able to enroll in his regional or village corporation.

Ricky Tagaban’s robe during its First Dance ceremony at the Sealaska Heritage Institute on 2020

Ricky Tagaban’s robe during its First Dance ceremony at the Sealaska Heritage Institute on 2020

This can be especially upsetting given that some shareholders aren’t Alaska Native. Non-Native people can inherit shares from original enrollees, making them part of the corporations while Alaska Natives like Tagaban are left out. Different corporations have different rules for what non-Native shareholders are permitted to do, but restrictions are usually in place to differentiate their shareholder status. Most aren’t allowed to vote, and many can’t pass the shares on in their wills. 

“We now see corporations opening up shareholder status to non-Native folks, we see more and more young Native people who do not have access to becoming a shareholder and therefore, often lose access to any of the cultural and nonprofit work that these corporations work to support,” explained Ruth Miller, Dena’ina Athabascan. As a recent college graduate, Miller is part of the younger Alaska Native peer group who aren't necessarily guaranteed corporate enrollment. Due to relatives who gifted her shares, she is both a tribal citizen and a corporate shareholder. 

A generation older, McCowan also saw blood quantum as a major obstacle for the Alaska Native community. He viewed it as such a pressing matter that he had refused to enroll in his regional corporation, Sealaska, since they maintained that when they open up their descendancy enrollment, people will have to be at least one-quarter Alaska Native.

“I think that if we solve blood quantum, then we solve the notion of how people get to define their Native identity, and then the enrollment issues are going to be a whole lot less,” McCowan said.

Those against blood quantum requirements aim to make Alaska Native corporate enrollment based on lineal descent instead.

Thiele hopes to make this happen in her lifetime.

“I would love to see in the future, in the next 50 years, you don't have to talk about whether or not someone has blood quantum, or can be involved in the corporation based on it,” she said.

Ruth Miller, Athabascan, an advocate from the younger generation of Alaska Natives

Ruth Miller, Athabascan, an advocate from the younger generation of Alaska Natives

But for some, expanding access only seemed like a bandaid solution to a larger problem. Miller sees blood quantum issues as a symptom of an ongoing contradiction between the regional corporations' for-profit setup and Alaska Native traditional values. She's spent the past few years in environmental advocacy, and currently works for Native Movement, an Indigenous non-profit focused on climate justice. This has caused her to confront the topic in both her personal and professional life, given the interconnected nature of the corporations, land, and Indigenous culture. Instead of making the main emphasis on finding ways to include the next generation in the corporations, she felt the community should concentrate on shifting importance away from the corporations altogether. 

“We're constantly having to fight our way in, because we increasingly can only access our culture through institutions like corporations,” she said. “So as young native people, we need to be willing to look past things. We need to be able to carry our people's love for the land, and love for our cultures past these institutions.”

Education and engagement

Alaska Native corporations’ responsibility didn’t just extend to future generations of potential shareholders. Some thought more could be done to support Alaska Native cultural identity and engagement amongst current shareholders, too.

Alyssa London, Tlingit, knows the topic well.

In 2017, she stood on the Miss USA national stage and announced, “Tlingit aya xat”, which means, “I am Tlingit,” in her Indigenous language. As the first Alaska Native to compete in the pageant, it was a proud moment in her life. But when the video of her introduction appeared on YouTube, some comments began surfacing from non-Natives who questioned her Indigenous identity. Since then, she has dedicated her career to exploring culture and eliminating harmful misconceptions around Indigenous peoples. She recently founded Culture Story, a company focused on promoting Indigenous storytelling in mainstream media. Through her work, she hopes to expand people’s perception of Native identity.

“It's a call to have people broaden their mind about what it means to be Indigenous today, and maybe separate it from being about appearance, blood quantum, or where you grew up,” she said. London is multiracial, with Tlingit and Norwegian background. She grew up in Seattle, away from her ancestral home in Alaska, but maintained a strong connection to her culture over the years through family visits, language, and traditional practices.

Experiences like London’s are increasingly common in more recent generations of Alaska Natives, who are more likely to be multiracial, from more than one tribe, or raised away from their ancestral lands than older Alaska Native generations. This dynamic isn’t likely to change: according to the Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska Natives are a young population, with a median age of about 27 in 2010. On top of this, there is extensive diversity within the overarching Alaska Native community. With 11 Alaska Native cultural groups, over 200 tribes, and more than 50 dialects, there isn’t a singular Alaska Native look, lifestyle, history, or tradition.

Alyssa London, Tlingit, and her father, Tate London, and grandfather, Ernie Boyd, visit Cape Fox Lodge in Ketchikan, Alaska, about 2014.

Alyssa London, Tlingit, and her father, Tate London, and grandfather, Ernie Boyd, visit Cape Fox Lodge in Ketchikan, Alaska, about 2014.

From her outreach at Culture Story, she has observed that there is a uniting thread across most experiences. No matter people’s backgrounds, they just wanted to feel welcomed and claimed by their community. 

In the case of the Alaska Native corporations, she believed it would be helpful for them to continue putting resources towards the type of media that could promote confidence in one’s Indigenous identity.

“For Alaska Native corporations and its shareholders to continue to be in existence and thrive in the next 50 years, they have to rebrand people's perception… and help make shareholders feel validated and proud to be Alaskan Native,” London said. “If we continue down that path of making people feel excluded, then the culture will not have people to engage with it and make use of the programs, whether it's language or a culture camp, because they won't feel like they have any claim to it or belong.”

Thiele expressed similar sentiments.

“It would be great if people could think about Native identity in a non-boxed in way — Native people look different, have all different shapes and sizes. And also our Native identities aren't just ‘Alaska Native’ — we have different subgroups. And we have different languages that make us really unique,” she said. “We're not just pushed into one box.”

Others recommended more education about the corporations and increased efforts to engage younger generations of shareholders. This belief often originated from their own experience as young shareholders, when they felt disconnected or confused about the role the corporations played in their lives.

“There is not a dedicated kind of education system. There is not currently a process of growing informed shareholders,” Qassataq said, who has done advocacy work surrounding Alaska’s general education system. She campaigns for more teachings about Alaska Native people, including contemporary Alaska Native issues, such as ANCSA.

“Nothing is taught about corporations in school, and so it's possible to live out your life without ever having to learn anything about it,” she said. She believed the lapse in education was part of a larger problem of Indigenous erasure, which could lead to negative consequences in everything from laws to healthcare.

“In the lack of knowledge about our corporations, a lot of people make assumptions that are untrue and are ultimately hurtful against Native people,” she said.

It was one part educating non-Alaska Natives about what the corporations were, one part raising awareness about what they signified to the Alaska Native community itself. For all the potential impact they might have on Indigenous Alaskans, their functions still remain unclear to many.

This was the case for Qassataq, Thiele, Boerner, Medicine Crow and Thompson, who grew up with a vague understanding of what the Alaska Native corporations signified. Qassataq and Medicine Crow recall some conversation about ANCSA from family members, but both experienced an overall sense of distance from the organizations.

“It felt that the only tangible thing that I could really see the corporation doing was the logging industry,” Medicine Crow said. “And that didn’t inspire me to get involved.”

It often seemed that knowledge about Alaska Native corporations at a younger age was reliant on whether one’s family members were involved in the corporation. This left questions for Thiele and Thompson, whose families weren’t as active in their corporations.

“I didn't really know what they meant. Besides that sometimes my family got dividends,” said Thiele.

Melanie Bahnke, Yupik, president of Kawerak Inc., a regional non-profit corporation in the Bering Straits Region, and Ivy Bahnke, Yupik

Melanie Bahnke, Yupik, president of Kawerak Inc., a regional non-profit corporation in the Bering Straits Region, and Ivy Bahnke, Yupik

Those who came from families involved with ANCSA, like McCowan and London, were more familiar with the corporations, but the concept still wasn’t completely clear until they became older.

McCowan recalls stuffing envelopes with his cousins when they were young to help his grandpa campaign for board positions. Back then, he viewed the corporations as a place he and others in his community would probably end up working for. His family had been part of the land claims battle for generations, so while he didn’t think too hard about what the corporations actually meant for the community as a kid, it seemed like a natural outcome that he too might work there one day.

“My understanding was, ‘These things are businesses, but they also own the land, but I guess they're cultural because grandpa is there, and my cousins work for them too,’” he said.

The family legacy aspect was evident to Nicole Hallingstad, Tlingit, as well.

“You'll hear this over and over from people: my grandparents, my aunties and uncles, they fought for our land claim,” she said. 

For those who did not learn about the corporations early in life, they typically learned about ANCSA through their own initiative, as they grew older and became more politically involved. But Thompson maintained that this timeline was too little, too late.

“Somebody has to teach us about our corporations. Somebody has to be able to know how to talk to people at different ages, to get them aware and involved at younger ages,” Thompson said. 

One method she suggested was to make shareholder activities more approachable for younger ages, such as organizing a field trip to a meeting, or having a group outing to the facilities. This could make Alaska Native corporations appear more accessible to younger generations who might not have had a lot of exposure to them.

“I was very shy growing up. There's no way I would have had the courage to walk into an informational meeting,” she recalled.

Hallingstad echoed these statements, emphasizing what the disconnect might mean for future generations.

“A big challenge of all of our ANCSA corporations is keeping our descendants connected to and engaged in the activities of the corporation. The original shareholders were the fighters who made it happen,” she said. “But the farther we get from that generation, it's possible, the less connected people feel to their corporation.”

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Read part 1, Alaska Natives’ complicated identities.

Up next, part 3: Solutions going forward.

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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