This story is part of a reporting collaboration between Indian Country Today, Alaska Public Media and the Anchorage Daily News and on the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Funding for the project was provided by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.
To qualify as an original shareholder in an Alaska Native Corporation, you had to be born before Dec. 18, 1971. That date — when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was signed into law — divided Alaska Native generations and even families. The corporations formed under ANCSA are slowly opening up to new generations of shareholders though, allowing younger Alaska Native people to have a voice in shaping the future.
Alyssa London has always felt most at home with her Tlingit community.
“I am a proud Tlingit woman who grew up with her family telling her who she is and where she comes from,” said London.
London knows her culture’s past and lives out the values and traditions daily. It’s the future she has questions about.
“I would like future generations to not have to defend their identity as much,” she explained. “And to just be able to be raised with that sense of who they are and to just be able to continue to walk in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents and uphold that legacy.”
When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed into law, it established 12 corporations. Those who were at least one quarter Alaska Native and born before Dec. 18, 1971, were eligible to receive 100 shares in their corporation. So now, corporations are faced with a big decision: open up enrollment to descendants born after the initial date, or stick with original shareholders only.
“Anytime you have a policy that says, ‘you get this and you don’t,’ it creates divide,” said Ayyu Qassataq, Inupiaq.
Corporations will also have to decide whether to allow descendants who are less than a quarter Alaska Native to enroll.
“If we continue to use blood quantum as a measure of how native we are. There is a time in the future where there will no longer be native people,” said Qassataq.
Ayyu Qassataq, who is Inupiaq, was born after the ANCSA deadline, meaning she couldn’t enroll in her regional or village corporation. But last summer, her mom gave her a small number of shares. That means she can further contribute to her home region through her voting rights as a shareholder.
“It really lit a fire within me to ensure that these corporations and organizations that represent Alaska Native people are inclusive of our Native people,” she said.
Alaska Native shareholders can’t sell their shares, but they can pass them on in their wills or gift them to others. Some argue that the setup is fair, because it doesn’t dilute the worth of the shares. Others believe it is unreliable — descendants might not get any shares or have enough to pass down to their children. Now a mom herself, Ayyu is thinking ahead to how enrollment policies might impact future generations of Alaska Natives.
“The much bigger picture is: what are we setting up for the future of these corporations if we are not including our people? One hundred years from now, when the original shareholders of ANCSA are no longer with us, who will be the decision makers in our corporations? Who will have the votes?,” she asked.
Six out of 12 regional corporations have opened up enrollment to descendants of the original shareholders. In 2015 Calista shareholders voted to open enrollment to descendants and remove blood quantum requirements. Their shareholder base has since grown from 13,000 to over 34,000.
“We’re very much about sharing our in our community and helping others. Part of that was Calista shareholders feeling that they wanted to share in the ability to enroll as a shareholder,” said Leonard.
Calista’s communication director, Thom Leonard, was born two months before the ANCSA deadline, meaning he could enroll while his younger siblings couldn’t. Once separated by an arbitrary date, his whole family is now able to be a part of the corporation.
“Being able to provide and support those opportunities for the next generation is important,” said Leonard.
Alix Lacey is one of those new shareholders. Lacey is part of Hooper Bay’s tribe where her family is from. She lives in Anchorage and was able to enroll in Calista as a descendant around a year ago.
“So this is a picture of me and my grandma, and I’m considered the descendant of her. So she is the reason why I’m enrolled in Calista,” said Lacey.
While Lacey feels closer to her tribe, she values the educational and professional opportunities that her corporation provides.
“They do you know, finance my school, you do get dividends. There’s a lot of opportunities that are available to me from being a descendent from that region that I’m grateful for,” she said.
Shareholders will ultimately determine what happens to the corporations and the traditional lands they oversee.
“In order for the lands to be in good hands in the future, in order for the corporations to be run well, there needs to be more involvement of younger generations — either in board settings or in leadership development roles,” said London.
London is excited to help shape what the next 50 years of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act will look like, alongside the new perspectives and dynamic thinking of other young Alaska Native shareholders.