What ANCs are doing to help Alaska Native communities cope with the pandemic

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act divided the state into 12 areas, each represented by a regional corporation. A 13th represents Alaska Natives out of state. (Image: Alaska Dept. of Labor)

Koniag, the Alaska Native regional corporation for Kodiak island, was designed to be a for-profit company. Now, with the coronavirus threatening to disrupt the normal supply lines, Koniag President Shauna Hegna says one focus is on feeding the island.

“The issue has become extremely important in the midst of a pandemic with global travel bans,” Hegna said. “Right now is a time in which we must have food security for our people.”

The corporation is helping the island’s tribal health organization to deliver groceries to tribal offices, for distribution to homes in the communities Koniag represents. Hegna said Koniag is also supporting the development of community farms and gardens. It’s contributed to a meal program for Kodiak seniors, and it’s donated to a program that’s delivering meals via school bus to vulnerable children in Kodiak city.

Shauna Hegna is president of Koniag, the regional corporation for Kodiak Island. (Photo: Koniag)

“To date, Koniag has already spent $60,000 on COVID-19 response,” Hegna said, adding that there’s likely more to come.

If the courts allow it, Alaska Native Corporations like Koniag will receive a share of the $8 billion Congress set aside to help tribes deal with the pandemic. Some tribal leaders say the corporations don’t deserve the money because their mission is profit.

Several of Alaska’s 12 regional corporations are mounting campaigns like Koniag’s. NANA, in the northwest Arctic, for instance, has pledged $40,000 for a food program and $100,000 to deliver sanitation supplies to every household in its region. Together, including $1 million from Sealaska, the corporations are spending more than $2 million to help their communities respond to the pandemic – and that’s just for actions that have been publicly announced.

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For community programs and foodbanks, the contributions can be substantial. But these are not big line items for major conglomerates, as both NANA and Koniag have become.

Like many ANCs, they got into government contracting years ago and now have subsidiary offices near Washington, D.C. 

NANA and its family of companies have more than 9,000 employees around the country and around the world. They report expenditures of nearly $1.5 billion.

Koniag has 1,200 employees nationwide and expenditures of $300 million.

These numbers matter, because if Treasury is allowed to send some of the $8 billion fund to ANCs, it plans to distribute some of it based on a corporation’s budget and how many employees it has.

(The figures cited above are from data the corporations provided to the Treasury Department to be a CARES Act beneficiary. A spreadsheet was widely distributed outside of government. Federal investigators are now looking into the data leak.)

Meanwhile, on the Kuskokwim River, Akiak Chief Mike Williams says his tribal council is preparing for the pandemic by restoring water service to every household in the village, to improve sanitation. The tribe is also fixing up houses, in case people become sick and need to be isolated. And, Williams said, as part of Akiak’s response to the pandemic, he wants to help hunters and fishermen buy fuel for their boats, so they can bring food to elders.

“We have been depending on hunting and fishing and gathering for survival for forever, Williams said. “And I think that’s going to be more important than ever before.”

Akiak is one of the tribes suing to block the Treasury department from giving part of the $8 billion coronavirus fund to ANCs. Williams believes the entire fund should go only to federally recognized tribes. He doesn’t want the money to flow through corporations to the communities.

“When they start taking the money, funding to provide services, then we’ve lost it. And we don’t want to do that,” he said. “We don’t want to set a precedent that the private corporations will provide services for us. No. We paid heavy price for (the) loss of our lands here in Alaska.”

The “loss” Williams refers to is what happened in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, in 1971. The law created the Native corporations and gave them title to 44 million acres of what might have been, if not for one act of Congress, tribal land. 

Some tribal advocates see the Settlement Act, and the Native corporations themselves, as tools of assimilation.

Corporation leaders and those who believe ANCSA was a force for good say the law didn’t result in a “loss” of Native lands but created a uniquely Alaska system that’s outside the tribal model to benefit Native people.

Mike Williams Sr., senior chief of the Akiak Native Community, photographed in 2016. Williams says Alaska Native corporations, should not receive government aid meant for tribes. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Williams, like a lot of Alaska Natives, is both a tribal member and a shareholder in Native corporations. He said his corporations aren’t helping to deliver services to prepare Akiak for the pandemic.

The website for his regional corporation, Calista, lists multiple types of COVID-19 assistance it’s providing. Among other things, it offered the tribes in its area administrative help so they can claim a share of the $8 billion CARES Act fund.

Calsita and most regional ANCs are also responding with distinctly corporate help: They’re sending early distributions of cash to their shareholders.

The average Calista shareholder household will receive about $500, which the corporation says will deliver $4 million to the economy of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

In a pandemic or not, dividends are the primary assistance Native corporations provide. In 2018, the 12 regional corporations say they distributed $217 million to their shareholders.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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