June 29, 1997

Will Mayo

Will Mayo, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference: "I learned a lot in a very short time, and got scared." (Anchorage Daily News photo by Jim Lavrakas)

Eloquent Mayo speaks for Alaska's tribes

By Don Hunter
Daily News reporter

When legislators hostile to Indian country spoke to the Alaska Federation of Natives board in Juneau last February, Will Mayo raised his hand with a question.

Actually, it was another speech, and it was vintage Mayo: decorous, impassioned and funny.

To Rep. Joe Green, R-Anchorage, who had said he feared being unwelcome as a visitor in Indian country, Mayo said: ''You don't have to be afraid. The people will still treat you the same. We will feed you, we will put you to bed, we will get you up in the morning. Someone might even fall in love with you.''

The tense room erupted in good-natured laughter.

Mayo has the gift. With a seemingly spontaneous turn of phrase, the 44-year-old president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference can inspire allies, disarm antagonists, sway the climate of an angry debate. The gift has brought Mayo to the forefront of a new generation of Alaska Native leaders who came of age largely after passage of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

As much as any single figure, Mayo has been a sparkplug in Alaska's tribal sovereignty movement -- as the elected head of one of the state's largest Native health and social service agencies, as a leader of the state's biggest organization of tribal governments, the Alaska Inter-tribal Council, as a fiery and charismatic speaker who can rally a convention hall of villagers.

He didn't set out to be leader. He was in his late teens, and like others of his generation, watched from his village, Tanana, as ANCSA took shape in Washington, D.C.

''There was a lot of excitement. Mostly, people were thinking, 'I'm gonna get a big check, and some land','' he said.

''I was living in Tanana through this time, raising my family. I was just a happy trapper, and wood cutter and water hauler and moose catcher, you know.''

A neighbor suggested he run for the village corporation board.

''So I got on there, and I've always been a good talker, so I started talking and representing Tanana at these various forums.

''I learned a lot in a very short time, and got scared,'' he said.

At the time, restrictions on sale of corporation stock were due to expire in 1991, meaning anyone, Native or non-Native, Tanana resident or Los Angeles resident, would be able to buy and sell it.

''And we all knew that if the stock went, the land went with it,'' Mayo said.

''I began communicating to shareholders that what we really need to do is transfer our land to our tribal government, and let the corporation handle the money in a stock portfolio. The tribal government could enable the corporation to develop certain lands that it felt was appropriate or meaningful, or just keep the land in its (natural) state.''

Mayo and his wife, Yvonne, moved to Fairbanks in 1984 with their two children. He applied for a job with the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a nonprofit organization that represents 40 Interior tribes and two Native associations and has roots in generations-old springtime tribal gatherings at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers.

Six years later, he was elected president.

''There weren't many people in those days who were standing up and talking out for tribal sovereignty, the power we have as a tribe and how it's so much greater than any corporation, that it truly provides us with tools to not just preserve but to revitalize and grow as a culture,'' he said.

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