Eagle River Senator Fred Dyson's recent commentary in the Anchorage Daily News, "Alaska Natives thrived before the coming of the white man," was a surprisingly positive essay from a conservative who often opposes legislation and funding to help rural, generally Native, Alaskans. So "good on" the senator for reminding all Alaskans about the skill and intelligence Native Alaskans have always demonstrated in living here.
It was an enlightening piece as far as it went, but it left the reader wondering if Native people had accomplished anything else worth noting since European contact in 1741. Today Alaska Native people are contributing to Alaska in ways few non-Natives appreciate.
The most significant accomplishment by Native people in modern-day Alaska was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), the most successful aboriginal land claims settlement in history. The Act allowed the construction of the trans Alaska oil pipeline enabling Alaska's oil and gas industry to thrive, and it created a broad array of successful, Alaska-based, Native-owned companies.
In 2006 the thirteen ANCSA regional corporations and top three village corporations brought $6.965 billion into the Alaska economy as revenue, according to the ANCSA Regional Association's 2006 Economic Report. Fifty-two percent of this revenue came via the federal 8(a) contracting preference program, adding to that all-important one third of the Alaska economy that is driven by federal spending. Across the globe there were 39,746 people working for these sixteen companies,. That total included 5,467 living in Alaska, and 78 percent were not Native.
The Alaska Business Monthly Top 49ers list in 2008 showed 18 of the top 49 Alaska-owned companies as Native-owned businesses. Native companies on the list made up 78 percent of the total employees and 57 percent of the employees working in Alaska. Sixty-six percent of all the revenue earned by Top 49 companies was earned by Native corporations.
Native Alaskans, through the companies they own and operate, have begun to reverse Alaska's historic economic model of exporting resources and profits. Today these sixteen Native corporations have an in-state payroll of nearly $700 million and pay $119.9 million in dividends to shareholders, which is largely spent in Alaska. In 2006 these same companies amassed assets totaling $4.5 billion. These companies are proving that world-class enterprises can be successfully headquartered in Alaska.
Alaska Native corporations also take on a large share of social responsibility in our state. In 2006 ANCSA regional corporations and the three top village corporations paid out $22.4 million in charitable contributions, almost all of it in Alaska. This doesn't even count the significant amount of social services delivered to Alaska Natives and disadvantaged people in Alaska by Native organizations like the Southcentral Foundation, Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Chugach Heritage Foundation, Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Sealaska Heritage Foundation. In 2006 ANCSA companies also paid $21.8 million in scholarships.
When we see an "us-and-them" Alaska, we are forgetting that most of the people working for Native corporations aren't Native. We forget that all of the resources pumped, mined, caught and harvested came from rural Alaska, where most Alaska Natives live.
The rich Native culture we have in our state makes Alaska the unbelievably fantastic place it is. Native people are our co-workers, employers, employees, business partners, customers, friends, neighbors and family members. They are as Alaskan as you can get.
When we are considering the plight of communities like Emmonak and Kotlik, or debating the cost to support rural infrastructure, we all need to keep this broader picture of Alaska Native people in mind, not just a really interesting museum exhibit about life prior to 1741.
Bob Poe is a Democratic candidate for governor and author of the ANCSA Regional Association 2006 Economic Report.