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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie, Inupiaq, was 19 when she came across a pamphlet about the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. It was the first time she had encountered an explanation of the 1971 legislation, which settled the state’s Indigenous land claims and established 12 Alaska Native corporations, including the one she was enrolled in.

She was shocked.

Kellie’s Alaska Native corporation had been a familiar presence in her life, quietly yet consistently in the background throughout the years. As a kid, she associated it with the shareholder dividends that went towards her family’s bills and the newsletters around the house. As she got older, she began to view it as a pathway for additional opportunities, such as internships and scholarships.

But she had never learned why it was created, what it signified in regards to her rights and history as an Indigenous Alaskan, or that there were other Alaska Native corporations beyond her own.

“The deep impact of realizing I didn’t know the origin of what was providing for my young life was such that I never wanted to feel that way again,” Kellie said.

Stories like Kellie’s are extremely common. Many Alaskans report that they initially learned about the legislation as an adult – through a college course, an ANCSA-related job, or their own research. For those who did learn about ANCSA earlier in life, it was often through a family member or similar channel. Rarely though, did people recall learning about it in class.

In Kellie’s case, it wasn’t that her pre-college educators were lacking – she said she’s deeply thankful for her high school teachers, and looks back fondly at all her learning experiences during that time. Rather, it was due to a dynamic that many Alaska Natives are likely familiar with, in which they might receive a great education about their history as an American citizen, but are left to seek out information elsewhere to learn anything about their history as an Alaska Native.

“It felt like there were two educational experiences: everything that we need to know to become successful self-determining people leading in our own lives,” she said, referring to the general Alaska Native community, “and everything we learned in school.”

Kellie has spent ten years serving in various positions across sectors. Her ANCSA discovery partly shaped her career decisions and current passions – through all her past roles, she’s focused on strengthening dialogue and knowledge about Alaska Native culture, history, and policy.

“The jolt I felt in learning about ANCSA was enough to chart my life,” she said.

Larger trend of Indigenous erasure 

In many ways, the lack of information on ANCSA is part of a larger trend of Indigenous erasure in media, education, and entertainment.

Around 87 percent of state history standards only cover Native Americans and Alaska Natives in contexts occurring before 1900, according to research by IllumiNative, a Native-led nonprofit. In 27 states, the curriculum never mentions an individual Native person at all. This erasure can lead to faulty beliefs which later impact policy. For example, that Native communities no longer exist, or that they aren’t part of modern society.

“Invisibility is the modern form of bias against Native Americans,” explains the report.

Even in states that have larger Indigenous populations, like Alaska, these findings seem to be on display. In fact, much of the current ANCSA education stems from the efforts of one person, who spent years fighting for schools to include it.

Around 40 years prior to Kellie’s ANCSA discovery, another young Alaska Native was also searching for answers about the legislation.

Paul Ongtooguk, Inupiaq, was in high school when ANCSA passed into law. The buzz about the land claims movement was everywhere back then, including his hometown, Nome.

Paul Ongtooguk, right, with UAA faculty members James Nageak and Fannie Akpik, both Inupiaq. (Photo courtesy of Paul Ongtooguk, 2022)

Paul Ongtooguk, right, with UAA faculty members James Nageak and Fannie Akpik, both Inupiaq.

“It really upset the social cart,” he recalled. “Some key non-Natives were very upset… So it wasn’t in their interest to promote an informed view about Alaska Native claims.”

Ongtooguk heard debates, arguments, and political speeches on ANCSA, but never came across the specific details of what was in the actual legislation. So he decided to take matters into his own hands, and began searching for a copy of the act himself. After several fruitless inquiries, he received a mailed copy from Sen. Ted Stevens’ office in Washington, D.C.

“I remember sitting down and reading this thing, which was, of course, a wrong way to understand legislation,” he recalled. “It's not like a novel where there's a beginning, middle, and end.”

To make it more digestible, he began writing notes in the margins – questions he had, important legal aspects, observations on the political context of the time. His personal investigation into ANCSA would later serve as the foundation for “The Annotated ANCSA,” some of the initial curriculum on the topic, which is still one of the main ANCSA educational tools today.

After high school, Ongtooguk left Alaska to study education, with plans to become a teacher in northwest rural Alaska. He assumed that ANCSA would be a main part of what he’d have to cover as a social studies teacher. But upon his return, he realized that nothing had changed – there was still an almost non-existent level of information available as there had been when he’d sought out a copy of the legislation years earlier.

“I was shocked that nobody knew more than I did, which was frightening considering how little I knew,” he said. “When I asked why it wasn’t taught, they just said 'we don't do that kind of thing.'”

Ongtooguk spent the next few decades working to strengthen education in Alaska, as the director of Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a professor at Ilisagvik College in Utqiaġvik and Dartmouth College, and the creator of various educational materials. There have been several improvements in education during this time, including a section on ANCSA in Alaska Studies, the high school social studies class that Alaskan students are required to take. However, Ongtooguk says it has been a constant battle to add anything more. Which leads to the question: why do Alaska Natives have to fight for such a historic event to be taught, especially when it still impacts all Alaskans today?

‘There’s no textbook’

Ongtooguk initially attributed ANCSA’s omission to a general lack of awareness. Without a specific curriculum on Alaska Native history and policies, many good-intentioned teachers didn’t even realize they were excluding a critical part of the Alaskan story. He witnessed this a lot in rural Alaska, where teachers were often from the Lower 48. It’s reflected in data as well – only 5 percent of the state’s teachers are Alaska Native, even though Alaska Natives make up around 20 percent of the population, according to research from the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research. 

“Teaching a majority Alaska Native class about their own history can be terrifying if you’re not Alaska Native,” he said. “And even if you are, like in my case, it's pretty daunting because there's no textbook.”

An initial ANCSA educational guide

An initial ANCSA educational guide

To fix this, he set out to create a textbook and course plan, backed by funding from supportive local organizations. But the goal posts kept changing – with educational materials now available, he found that some teachers insisted ANCSA was too complex to teach.

It seemed that the larger obstacle was that the topic wasn’t a priority. To some, Alaska Native history sounded too specific for a generalized education system, despite the fact that Native history and current day policies are by default a part of the entire nation's past and present. 

Research indicates this approach to curricula could be changing. Today, 78 percent of Americans are interested in learning more about Native cultures, with 72 percent of Americans supporting significant changes to K-12 curricula, according to research by IllumiNative.

The numbers align with a recent rise in Alaska Native-led initiatives that aim to increase visibility and understanding of the state’s Indigenous communities. One example is the Alaska Native Heritage Center’s cultural tourism program, which promotes the sharing of Alaska Native experiences and stories, for the benefit of both tourists and community members.

A class at the Alaska Native Heritage Center

A class at the Alaska Native Heritage Center 

Another example is the Hoonah Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit in southeast Alaska which operates a library, photo archive, and programming to provide knowledge about the Hoonah Tlingit way of life. The foundation also partners with local groups and schools to teach about past and present Tlingit experiences.

Amelia Wilson, Tlingit, the foundation’s director, says the goal is to expand access to cultural knowledge and the materials their heritage center houses. 

It's a mission she’s passionate about.

Like Kellie, Wilson didn’t fully learn about ANCSA until she was in college. In fact, there wasn’t much education on any Alaska Native topic throughout her K-12 school classes in Juneau, apart from an annual week that highlighted Tlingit stories.

“I remember feeling so proud about that,” she said. “But in retrospect, it was only one week carved about Alaska Natives, when we're literally on the homelands of the Alaska Native people.”

"Native Emphasis Week" 1986

"Native Emphasis Week" 1986

‘You can’t get off the bus’

On a basic level, an understanding of ANCSA is important for practical reasons. After all, it might be one of the most critical events in the state’s history: It’s the largest land settlement to ever occur in the United States. It’s part of the reason oil companies have a significant presence in the state. And the corporations it created are some of the most important drivers of Alaska’s economy.

Additionally, it’s useful for shareholders to know more about their stock ownership, ANCSA land management, and what this means for one’s day to day.

“What our corporations do and what their responsibilities are, can often be a point of confusion,” explained Wilson.

Outside of the school system, Alaska Native corporations, and non-profit organizations like the Alaska Native Regional Corporation Association already aim to circulate some of this information. 

"ARA continues to educate the public and business community in Alaska and across the lower 48 about what Alaska Native regional corporations are, why they were created, who they represent, and the purposes they serve,” states the Alaska Native Regional Corporation Association website. 

However, Ongtooguk suggested the corporations could go one step further, and provide tutorials about reading annual reports and interpreting key corporate benchmarks, such as equity per share and year over year changes in equity. He considered this the corporations' responsibility due to ANCSA's unique setup, which essentially made share ownership an Alaska Native birthright and lifelong consideration. Unlike most corporate shareholders, Alaska Native shareholders can’t sell their stocks. 

“As an Alaska Native shareholder, you can't sell your shares,” he pointed out. “You can’t get off the bus. You can change the bus driver, but you can't get off the bus.”

Similar to how informed voters are thought to lead to a more just society, business savvy shareholders could lead to new corporate directions.

“Educated shareholders leads to more transparency, which is actually a way to achieve greater success,” he said. “Because that keeps the corporations disciplined.”

But there is a less direct reason that ANCSA education is crucial.

After Kellie came across the ANCSA pamphlet years ago, something about the situation nagged at her. It was more than just missing out on a few historical facts. It was the realization that people weren’t being taught about the policies that shape their lives.

The concept is known as critical consciousness, an educational theory which Kellie later studied in graduate school.

“In short, it’s knowing not just your experience living as a person, but all of the dynamics that inform, shape, and contribute to your life, enough that you then have the power to shape them,” she explained. “The education and reeducation of our people, of our history, Native policy and governance empowers us to move from that which has ‘happened’ to us, to determining the future of our own lives.”

Tundra Times education coverage.

Tundra Times education coverage.

Ongtooguk agreed.

“Ignorance about what it means to be Alaska Native and the challenges we face as Alaska Natives is the greatest cost that we have going forward,” he said. “It’s really a terrible expense.”

On one hand, a lack of knowledge on the topic could leave people open to misinformation and confusion.

One common misconception is that ANCSA was a choice Alaska Native elders made decades ago – that instead of the Alaska Native corporations that exist today, they could’ve decided to keep all of the Alaskan lands. The reality was that the other option wasn’t much of an option at all – without action from Alaska Native leaders during that time, it's likely that most of the land would’ve been lost.

“Most people, including our own, don’t realize that the land settlement was never assured. The fight was really a last minute effort and we were on the verge of completely losing any say over our traditional lands,” said Willie Hensley, Inupiaq. “It was either get a bill through Congress or get run over.”

More importantly, Ongtooguk viewed a full ANCSA education as a step in ensuring the survival of Indigenous communities, cultures, and legal rights.

“Because the natural tide of politics in the United States is always wanting Native peoples to disappear,” he said. “And disappear in the same way that serial killers have people disappear. It's not as though it's an accident. It's a policy. It's a long-term plan.”

To this end, he thought tribes and other Alaska Native organizations had a responsibility to educate the community on the topic as well. This way, young Alaska Natives could hear the Indigenous narrative of the state’s land claims movement, and learn what issues still stand. Without a cultural narrative, he feared that people would just end up viewing ANCSA as a monetary issue.

“If we’re at that stage, then we’ve lost. We’ve been commodified,” he said. “And as a culture and a people, we can’t afford that.”

Tundra Times education coverage

Tundra Times education coverage

The role of narratives is often mentioned in discussions about education and history. Accurate curriculums are more than just an acknowledgement of certain events – they also depend on the way those events are told. The message and tone of a story helps to shape the way people view their society, country, and even themselves. According to IllumiNative’s study, inaccurate narratives about Alaska Natives and Native Americans are a significant cause of Indigenous erasure. If the narrative is negative, the damage is even worse.

ANCSA could serve a purpose in regards to narratives as well. For some, it represents an uplifting story of compromise, unity, and justice that could become part of the collective American story – much like other civil rights movements of that era are.

“It’s such a rich story of unity that shows the bravery and ingenuity of our people,” Wilson said. “And it could really instill a sense of pride and inspiration for everyone.”

Although there are a wide range of opinions in the community about ANCSA's impacts, many would agree that the events leading up to it were inspiring and momentous. Without the efforts of Alaska Native leaders at the time, there most likely would have been no land settlement at all. It was this aspect of the story that Wilson thought should be highlighted.

She laid out the storyline: a group of young Alaska Native leaders uniting over thousands of miles to make sure all of their land wasn’t taken, their strategic approach to solving the problem, a statewide collaboration that took on the federal government through peaceful channels. A David and Goliath moment that also elevated important Alaska Native values such as care for future generations, sharing, and perseverance.

Ongtooguk is quick to point out existing flaws in the legislation, but also agreed that the events leading to ANCSA were a rare, transformative political movement that should be celebrated for what they were – in his words, the miracle of Dunkirk, as opposed to the victory of World War II.

“It’s one of these unique moments in time where one group's convictions help to turn the tide,” he said. “Given the odds, I’m always surprised that that group of leaders was able to pull off what they did.”

This is something all U.S. citizens could potentially take pride in – not just Alaskans or Alaska Natives, says Wilson. As the largest U.S. land settlement that’s ever happened, ANCSA is technically part of every American’s history. And although the actual legislation is complex, the story itself is something that schools could start teaching young, in an age appropriate way. As an example of what this might look like, Wilson pointed to lessons on Martin Luther King’s advocacy for young audiences.

“We should be telling the complete story of our nation. And it’s a beautiful story that is important for all of us to be educated on, regardless of where we live,” she explained.

ANCSA may have occurred 50 years ago, but it’s far from being a moment left in the past. It still has major relevance for policy change, community advocacy, and an overall understanding of Alaska. Education advocates will continue to push for its inclusion in standard curriculums, until its full value is acknowledged. 

“I want people to have a sense of cautious optimism, as they analyze what happened about ANCSA,” concluded Ongtooguk. “And I want them to say, ‘we see the shortcomings, we see a path forward, and we've got a standard that has been set by the Alaska Native leaders before us.’”

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* An earlier version named Kellie's role specifically 

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

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