Alaska Native identity ‘weighs heavily’ on friends and a future

Child with ulu
The future generations: a young Alaska Native girl cuts salmon with an ulu at the annual Elders and Youth Conference. ( Bill Roth, Alaska Dispatch News, 2017)

There isn’t one answer to the challenges of identity, enrollment and shareholder status for Alaska Natives.

Patuk Sophie Boerner and Delaney Naruyaq’ Thiele initially met through a policy fellowship where emerging Native leaders begin tackling the challenges of tomorrow. The two had grown up in different cities and were from different tribes. Soon they found common ground over an unignorable concern they share: blood quantum, and the future of Alaska Native corporate enrollment.

“We’re the only group of people that have to think about: who do we marry? Who do we have our kids with if we want to keep our lands and our rights within our community?” Thiele said, who is Dena’ina Athabascan and Yup’ik. Boerner, Inupiaq, and Thiele weren’t the only fellows who felt this way. Throughout discussions on subsistence rights, education access, and other policy matters, it was this problem that consistently loomed in the background, and bonded the cohort together.

Thiele sees this a lot in her generation. “It’s something that weighs heavily on a lot of my friends,” she said.

The 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act logo for Indian Country Today's ANCSA 50 project. (Illustration by Holly Mititquq Nordlum, Indian Country Today)
(Illustration by Holly Mititquq Nordlum of Naniq Design)

The thought is clearly on people’s minds, and will likely continue to be in the coming years. But the internal debates over enrollment policy changes are only half the battle. Once an Alaska Native corporation decides to open enrollment, they’d also have to determine what this process would look like.

Although shrouded in legal details and corporate guidelines, it’s not an academic question. The answer will have immediate on-the-ground impacts, shaping the future of the communities and how people understand their identity for years to come.

As Alaska Native regional and village corporations consider changes in enrollment policies, they can look to examples of tribes in the Lower 48 and Alaska who have already gone through the process themselves.

One solution is the reemergence of kinship based enrollment policies, says Gabe Galanda, Round Valley Indian Tribes of California, an Indigenous rights lawyer who has done extensive work towards countering tribal disenrollment.

“The best antidote to disenrollment or enrollment moratoria, is kinship renewal,” he explained, going on to list the different forms this could take. “Outlawing disenrollment, lifting enrollment moratoria, ending the racial fiction that is blood quantum in favor of some alternative program like lineal descent or reciprocal obligation being demonstrated in some way to the tribe. It has to be sort of a comprehensive approach, if kinship is going to reemerge throughout Indian country.”

Gabe Galanda, Round Valley Indian Tribes of California, listens to Nooksack members talk about disenrollment.
Gabe Galanda, Round Valley Indian Tribes of California, listens to Nooksack members talk about disenrollment.(Photo courtesy of Steve Ringman, The Seattle Times, 2015)

Lineal descent policies mean that anyone descended from an original tribal enrollee would be eligible for tribal citizenship, regardless of how much blood quantum they have. Supporters of this system say it most closely mirrors the type of belonging naturally found in communities, where kinship ties and cultural closeness indicate who is included.

The Cherokee Nation is perhaps one of the more notable examples of this. One can have Cherokee citizenship as long as they have an ancestor listed on the Dawes Roll, a registry from the early 20th century.

“Lineal descendant supporters think about high memberships through the lens of existence as a resistance right. And so there’s a desire to build up tribes’ numbers and capacity in order to survive and perpetuate the tribe,” said Elizabeth Rule, Chickasaw Nation, who is the director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy.

“On the other side, those who defend blood quantum requirements also evoke this language of survival, and they look upon those blood quantum minimums as a way to preserve an already existing closed community that’s very close and … usually very culturally connected,” she said.

There isn’t a lone solution.

The exact combination of policies would look different based on the needs and culture of the specific tribe or corporation. As one Anishinaabe scholar put it, the process is based on a complicated question: who are we and how do we know? The answer sometimes comes down to concepts that aren’t usually associated with each other — with blood quantum, the math of belonging, and for Alaska Native corporations, the business of identities.

“As Native people, it’s not just about who we think we are. It’s about our responsibility to our people in our communities, and to our homelands. And that has to be a core part of identity. Unfortunately, the way that federal policy has played out over the years, it has been intentionally set up to disconnect us and take us away from that,” said La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, Tlingit and Haida.

The future generations: Robert Vlasoff of Tatitlek and his grandson share a moment during the annual Elders and Youth Conference.
The future generations: Robert Vlasoff of Tatitlek and his grandson share a moment during the annual Elders and Youth Conference.(Photo courtesy of Bill Roth, Alaska Dispatch News, 2017)

“Each and every tribal nation would need to consider, to what extent it is willing to renew its kinship traditions, through cross cultural practices, or policymaking or lawmaking. And it would be left exclusively to tribal nations and their leaders,” Galanda said.

The idea of opening up enrollment to a much larger population base, as is the case through lineal descent, can be daunting to some Native nations, says Carole Goldberg, an expert in federal Indian law. Some worry that a large-scale increase could impact cultural cohesion and community connection. To accommodate these considerations, tribes could add modifications to the procedure. For example, all descendents could be eligible for membership, but they’d have to make an active effort to participate through a multi-step enrollment process, similar to the type of citizenship naturalization some countries have.

“That way you can ensure that there is some real connection that person has to the community,” Goldberg said.

Another idea is only allowing voting for tribal members who live in the community or are present for elections, so that major decisions are made by those who are most invested.

“What I want to emphasize is that there are a lot of choices available, in theory,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that all of these choices are available just because they sound intriguing. It takes time and commitment, but the possibilities are there.”

While the Cherokee Nation has used lineal descent for decades, some tribes have shifted their enrollment policies in more recent years. Back in 2007, White Earth Nation was contemplating this very situation. They knew they wanted to change their enrollment, but they weren’t certain where to start. On one hand, lineal descent would ensure their tribe could continue on forever, and would make certain that all family members would be included. On the other, some feared that a sharp uptick in enrollment could put a strain on already scarce resources, or that a lack of blood quantum guidelines might delegitimize the enrollment process.

Not ready to make a decision that could permanently alter the tribe’s future, they came to a solution which they coined the ‘’Four-Fourths Band-Aid.” Under the new policy, all citizens would be considered to have full blood quantum for enrollment purposes. This change would also make a difference for their descendants, who would now have higher blood quantum amounts that would allow them to enroll.

Their advice for communities currently going through the process? Stick to your cultural values, and do what feels right based on that.

“Four keys that basically worked for us [were]: really digging into our history — thinking about how Anishinaabe people thought about identity and citizenship in historical times; looking at our cultural values: how they could be implemented; having these open respectful discussions; and focusing on the future — what would be best for future generations?” said Jill Doerfler, Anishinaabe, who helped lead the enrollment change.

A few years later in 2019, Red Lake Nation in Minnesota adopted the same solution. As a result, every person who was an enrolled member of Red Lake Nation as of Nov. 10, 1958, would be considered a full-blood, or 4/4 blood degree, tribal member going forward.

Future generations: a young member of the Acilquq dance group performs with his parents at the annual Elders and Youth conference. 
Future generations: a young member of the Acilquq dance group performs with his parents at the annual Elders and Youth conference. (Photo courtesy of Loren Holmes, Alaska Dispatch News, 2017).

“Our decision at the council meeting to start moving away from blood quantum is the first step in creating a solution that will allow our people to carry on our ways forever,” said Red Lake Secretary Sam Strong, Red Lake Nation, in a press release. “Although it is a great first step, it is important to recognize that it is a first step and we need to continue to visit this enrollment issue until we can come to a consensus to end our current practice of mathematical genocide and move forward with a solution that will allow us to protect our nation forever.”

Some tribes have decided to keep blood quantum requirements, but lower the amount needed to enroll. This is the case for the Otoe-Missouria of Oklahoma, who lowered their enrollment amount from one-quarter to one-eighth in 2009 due to concerns over a shrinking population. The effects were immediate: before the change there were about 1,400 enrolled members with less than 200 of them below the age of 18. After, the total grew to 2,500 members, with more than 400 under the age of 18.

“Our tribe has gotten younger. A majority of our new members are younger people. This ensures a strong future for the Otoe Missouria Tribe,” said the tribe’s chairman, John Shotton.

Up in Alaska, the Knik Tribal Council has taken a different route. The tribe opened their enrollment to any Alaska Native or Native American person who lived in the region, regardless if they were Athabascan or not. All they needed was a certificate of Indian blood card and proof that they lived in the area. The policy permits people to have citizen status in another tribe as well.

The motivating factors behind this decision were to increase participation in their programs and to better provide services to all Indigenous people that resided in their service area, according to their website. But it hints at a concern many tribes and corporations face: how do you deal with a shrinking population?

Alaska Native corporations today

In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement passed into law as a way to settle Indigenous claims to land and resources, such as fish, game and other natural resources. The legislation created 13 Alaska Native regional corporations and more than 150 village corporations, which were to oversee 44 million acres of land divided on traditional cultural lines. The newly formed organizations would be for-profit companies that would distribute the proceeds to shareholders. Individuals who were one-quarter Alaska Native or more would receive 100 shares in their regional corporation if they had enrolled before December 17, 1971. This meant that those born after the date and future generations with lower blood quantum would not be included as shareholders. Since then, some corporations have voted to change this.

As it currently stands today, each Alaska Native corporation has slightly different enrollment rules, with some still considering potential enrollment policy changes.

For example, several years ago, Koniag shareholders voted to issue stock to an often overlooked group of Alaska Natives who were also left out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act — those who would have normally received dividends when ANCSA passed, but missed the enrollment deadline because they were deployed overseas for the Vietnam War. Thirty-one shareholders received stock through this program.

Today, they continue to look for other ways they can modify enrollment policies.

“Right now, Koniag is not issuing new stock, but Koniag’s board and leadership team continuously review the potential of opening enrollment, particularly as our population grows and changes over time. Koniag regularly conducts surveys to determine shareholder priorities, and we are focused on implementing those priorities as identified,” explained Shauna Hegna, Alutiiq, president of Koniag.

Shauna Hegna, Alutiiq, president of Koniag. 
Shauna Hegna, Alutiiq, president of Koniag. (Shauna Hegna, photo courtesy of Kerry Tasker, Alaska Business Magazine, 2019)

She said their effort to promote inclusion is reflected in their diverse shareholder base, which “ranges from those living in rural Kodiak Island villages to large cities around the world and from respected elders who are original shareholders to youthful shareholders who were gifted or inherited shares.”

Like those in the Lower 48, many Alaska Natives view blood quantum as a concept in conflict with Indigenous values.

“It’s not in our nature as Native peoples to be exclusive,” said Ayyu Qassatuq, Inupiaq.

Many of the corporations have grappled with this, and continue to search for ways around it.

This was the case for the Alaska Native corporation Calista.

“The feeling was as we go generations down the road, our children are likely going to have reduced blood quantum. And we felt like our children are our children, no matter what’s in their blood. So there’s no blood quantum requirement like some of the other corporations,” said Thomas Leonard, Calista’s Director of Corporate Communications and Shareholder Services.

Calista shareholders voted to open enrollment to descendants in 2015, and it went into effect in 2017. The process was an intentional one based on inclusion and community values — the corporation travelled to more than half of the region’s 56 remote villages, and gave presentations on the topic in both Yup’ik and English. In the end, they voted to get rid of blood quantum requirements for new shareholders. Descendants with less than a quarter blood quantum could now enroll, although due to ANCSA legislation, they can’t vote.

Calista also made it so new enrollees that are more than one-quarter Alaska Native have to be 18 years of age to vote. This stemmed from the fact that meetings only count if a majority of shareholders vote. After opening enrollment to descendants, their shareholder base more than doubled, and grew significantly younger. To account for this, they held a campaign focused on the importance of participation. The youth voting rate rose 30 percent after.

“Being a shareholder isn’t just about the benefits,” Leonard said. “It’s also about the obligation to community, you have to be informed and vote when the time comes.”

The decision was a moment that filled Leonard with joy. He was born two months before the cutoff date, so he had been able to enroll while his siblings had not.

Kisaġvigmuit Traditional Dancers performing Inupiaq songs and dances during the annual Elders and Youth Conference.
Kisaġvigmuit Traditional Dancers performing Inupiaq songs and dances during the annual Elders and Youth Conference.(Photo courtesy of Bill Roth, Alaska Dispatch News, 2017)

“’It was exciting, when it passed, to realize that now, my brother and sister had the opportunity to enroll, and through that, so did my two sons, and then my nephew and so on,” he said.

Six corporations have since opened their enrollment to descendents, although these shares often carry different rules.

In Interior Alaska, the regional corporation Doyon decided to create five shareholder classes (Class A, B, C, D, and E) based on age, village corporation enrollment, blood quantum, gifted, inherited, or original enrollment. The distinction occurred after 2007, when Doyon shareholders voted to open enrollment to all eligible people born after December 18, 1971, for Class C (children’s) stock.

Similarly, Sealaska created separate shareholder classes for descendants and those who were eligible to enroll but missed the deadline. The grouping is broken down into Class D (Descendant), Class L (Leftout) and Class E (Elder) stocks. Holders of these stock classes receive dividends and can vote in Sealaska elections, but can’t pass on their shares or gift them.

In the northwest, Bering Straits Native Corporation has attempted to mitigate enrollment exclusions by providing benefits to unenrolled descendants, such as scholarships, hire preferences, development programs, summer internship programs, campsite and recreational use benefits, and bereavement assistance.

This approach is common throughout the regional and village corporations. In instances where descendants could not be included as shareholders, many of the corporations tried to look after them by providing shareholder-like benefits.

This was also seen in Baan O Yeel Kon, the village corporation for Rampart, Alaska, where benefits such as scholarships, internships, and donated computers were available to both shareholders and their families — descendants included.

But these terms aren’t final. Both village and regional corporations are likely to change enrollment policies in the coming years, said Hallie Bissett, Athabascan, the executive director of the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association. Through her role, she interacts with more than 200 village corporations, and has witnessed how they’ve evolved overtime. Because ANCSA happened so recently, many village corporations were still learning what policies worked best for them.

“ANCSA is such recent legislation. Every corporation will be a little bit different. All 260 plus villages in Alaska are unique, but they do share best practices and will learn from each other. Some corporations limit stock in ways, like lifetime stock or ‘class B shares,’ some may have blood quantum requirements,” she said.

Around six village corporations have opened enrollment to those born after 1971, including the Kuskokwim Corporation and Tyonek Native Corporation.

These changes are just part of the corporations’ overall growth and adaptation that has occurred as new challenges arise.

“To look back from half a century ago to where we are today, and to see how these Alaska Native leaders were able to forge a new path for Indigenous Alaskans, is breathtaking,” explained Janissa Johnson, Alutiiq, a director of the Koniag board.

“There are miles to go before (Alaska Native corporations) sleep. We need to help continue our traditions and ties to the land,” said Jack Wick, Alutiiq, a former president of Koniag during its early days.

Future generations: a Bristol Bay Native Corporation fishing event.
Future generations: a Bristol Bay Native Corporation fishing event.(Photo courtesy of Bristol Bay Native Corporation)

The outcome could impact more than just the shareholders involved. Galanda believes that an Alaskan kinship enrollment precedent could have a positive effect for all Indigenous Americans.

“[ANCSA] decimated Alaska Native kinship and introduced a modern, tribal disenrollment process by way of the BIA. So anything that Alaska Natives could do to restore and renew their own kinship despite ANCSA, I think would be advantageous to all Indigenous peoples,” explained Galanda.

But at the end of the day, the decision will ultimately tie back to a personal level.

“It’s important that people don’t forget the ‘Alaska Native’ in ‘Alaska Native corporation,’” said Bissett. “We don’t think of being a shareholder like a regular corporation. We are stewards of the less than 10 percent of our lands that we were able to retain [through ANCSA]. It is important that we include all Alaska Natives, for they will care for the land when we are gone, but not if we haven’t taught them the way.”

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