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ANCSA changed my life — and Alaska’s future

  • Author: Anthony Drabek
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 19
  • Published February 19

Photo shows Alaskans who traveled to Washington, D.C., for congressional hearings on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in December 1971. Standing from left are George Cardner, Roger Connor, Emil Notti, Flore Lekanof, Cliff Groh, Barry Jackson, congressional secretary Thoda Forslund and Morris Thompson. Seated are Alaska state Rep. Willie Hensley, Alaska U.S. Rep. Howard Pollock and Laura Bergt. (ADN archive; Anchorage Times photo)

My ancestral homeland and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, helped me rebuild my life. Enrollment under ANCSA had just begun in 1970, when I came home to Kodiak after four years as a U.S. Army aviator and two combat tours.

I remember how excited my mom, Magnel, was as we enrolled to be owners of our traditional land. As Alaska Natives, we would become owners of lands and resources that we had been dispossessed of for centuries. The promise was exciting! But, at the time, I had no idea how the passage of ANCSA would affect me.

The Vietnam War had left me emotionally conflicted. It’s fair to say I had lost faith in humanity. I was rudderless and without purpose. My younger brother Alvin saw this and convinced me to spend a winter in the Bush, trapping and hunting with him. With survival and subsistence as our primary motivators and lots of time for personal reflection, I was able to reset, rediscover my fundamental faith in place and belonging, and find my purpose. We lived off the land — our land! As an Alaska Native person, reconnecting to our traditional land offered me a way to restore my spirit and heal.

My experience is a personal look at how the land returned to our communities through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the growth of Alaska Native corporations helps Alaska Native people. It was an honor to serve as chief executive officer of Natives of Kodiak, my village corporation, and a gift to now have the opportunity to serve on the Koniag Board of Directors, my regional corporation. These opportunities have enabled me to give back and furthers the sense of purpose our land helped me find.

When ANCSA was signed into law in December 1971, it was a profound change and a new direction to strengthen the voice of Alaska Native people. A simple explanation of the law is that it is a policy shift away from the Lower 48 reservation system, establishing a system that enabled stronger self-determination. Through ANCSA, Congress created the first socially responsible, for-profit corporations tasked with promoting the social, cultural and economic advancement of Alaska Native people and communities, in perpetuity. The transition to a corporate model was not easy. There were many challenges along the way, as people who had limited experience conducting Western business were thrust into new roles.

However, when you look at the results today, one could say that the Alaska Native corporations, or ANCs, created by ANCSA were some of the first socially conscious businesses. Who better to steward lands for the future than those who have subsisted off them for centuries? Today, ANCs use our lands, as our ancestors did, but also to sustain our people in a Western economy, delivering billions of dollars in economic impact and thousands of jobs to Alaska. This is money that stays in our state, creating an engine of opportunity for ANC shareholders and all Alaska residents. I believe Alaska Native corporations have already exceeded the expectations of those who created the law.

If I’d told my mom that our ANCSA regional corporation, Koniag, employed thousands of people and gave scholarships and support to all Kodiak Island communities, she most certainly would have smiled. If I could show her the Top 49ers issue of Alaska Business Monthly, where half of the largest Alaska-owned businesses were ANCs, she would be overjoyed.

As we look back at five decades of ANCSA, this agreement was — and continues to be — transformational. My story is just one example, but there are thousands more. There are hundreds of thousands of people positively impacted by ANCs. Alaska Native corporations are spending millions on educational and job training scholarships for Alaska Native people and championing important language and history preservation that allows younger generations to feel more connected to their heritage and identity. These benefits lead to a sense of pride in being Alaska Native, a significant change from 1971.

Alaska Native corporations and our Alaska Native cultures are vibrant parts of Alaska’s culture today, in part because of ANCSA. While we have a long way to go, I can only hope the next 50 years of ANCSA will deliver as much growth and success as the past five decades.

Anthony “Tony” Drabek is a member of the Koniag Board and former chief executive officer of Natives of Kodiak Inc. His ancestral home was the Village of Afognak. His wife Sandee and he live in Kodiak, close to his daughter Alisha Drabek and her family.

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