There is a phrase that Iñupiaq elder Vernita Sitaktun Qutquq Herdman likes to say: “When Natives fight Natives, someone else is winning.”
It’s the mentality behind a new initiative from First Alaskans Institute, a non-profit that focuses on empowering Alaska Native people. The program, called “Being Good Relatives,” aims to increase collaboration between Alaska Native tribes and Alaska Native corporations.
“People have noted for many years about the need for our tribes and corporations to bring their power together, and work through some federally created divides that make it hard for tribes and other entities to have the relationship that we know that they could have,” said La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, Tlingit and Haida, president and CEO of First Alaskans.
Alaska’s Indigenous legal landscape is unique when compared to the rest of the Lower 48: there are Alaska Native regional and village corporations, which oversee around 44 million acres of Indigenous land. And then there are 231 federally recognized Alaska Native tribes, which have a government to government relationship with the United States.
“They’re different entities that derive their authority from different places, each operating to take care of our Alaska Native people, but operating with different missions, drivers, and responsibility,” said Barbara ‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Blake, Haida,Tlingit, and Ahtna Athabascan, who works as the Alaska Native Policy Center Director at First Alaskans Institute.
It’s an interesting dynamic. The corporations and tribes technically serve the same Alaska Native people in their region, and sometimes even have overlap in leadership. Still, in the past there have been times that the two entities were at odds with each other over community decisions like resource development. Even when there aren’t disagreements, some have found it difficult to fully coordinate plans.
Medicine Crow doesn’t think this is a coincidence, but rather the result of federal policies intended to divide the community.
“Our tribes and our corporations were not set up to have a great relationship … And it speaks volumes to how strong and amazing our people are, that they’ve been working since the inception of these different entities, to always try to protect our people,” she explained. “People want to see our corporations and our tribes coming together and really utilizing their strengths together on behalf of our Native peoples.”
50 years after ANCSA established Alaska Native corporations, the community is finding new ways to bridge these types of institutional divides.
“Being Good Relatives” is one example. The program first started in 2018, with an event that promoted dialogue between corporate leaders, tribal councils, and the Indigenous Alaskans they both serve. The approach was simple: create a forum where everyone felt safe to have difficult conversations. Discussions highlighted specific local concerns, but also focused on strengthening relationships and laying the groundwork for better communication in the future. Most importantly, participants centered cultural solutions.
“The work comes from what they’re willing to come into the room with and share, and then be able to do with one another,” said Medicine Crow.
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The forums are typically organized by region, seeing as each region has slightly different topics they might want to address. The understanding between each region also runs deep — with each one having their own separate traditions, cultural history, and family ties.
First Alaskans Institute had planned to host more in person events, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on that idea. Now, they’re looking at ways they can recreate it virtually.
“Unification doesn’t mean 100 percent agreement or uniformity. But it means that we can come together and make a decision that together working on behalf of our people, we will get further than one would fighting each other,” said Medicine Crow.
This type of collaboration is increasing in other parts of Alaska as well. In early October, the Organized Village of Saxman and Cape Fox Corporation, Saxman’s village corporation, announced the creation of the joint Community Development Corporation. The new organization will lead a development project intended to revitalize the region. It’s a historic move that brings leaders together to act in unison, according to the Organized Village of Saxman’s President Joe Williams Jr.
“Never before in the history of Saxman have OVS, the City of Saxman and Cape Fox Corporation, the ANC of the Village of Saxman, met to discuss the future of Saxman. I have been working for 26 years to make this reunion happen and it finally happened!”, he said in a press release.
Similarly, the Alaska Native regional corporation Sealaska recently created a fund that will support regional solutions led by a combination of village corporations, tribes, and local businesses.
First Alaskans Institute hopes to continue facilitating programs like “Being Good Relatives” in the coming years.
“If their region is interested in doing this work, First Alaskans would love to be able to be in support of that,” said Blake.
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This story is part of a reporting collaboration between Alaska Public Media, Indian Country Today and the Anchorage Daily News on the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Funding for the ANCSA project was provided by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism. Read more in the series here.