Alaska’s regional Native corporations seek to expand federal influence

the U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In hopes of having a stronger voice in Washington D.C., a group of 12 regional Alaska Native corporations have created a new position.  

They’ve hired TJ Presley as their first government affairs director. He says this new job reflects a growing need to educate federal policy makers about Native corporations, which were created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971.

TJ Presley
TJ Presley has been a longtime legislative aide to state lawmakers in leadership positions. (Courtesy ANCSA Regional Association)

Presley works for a group called the ANCSA Regional Association (ARA), formed to give Native corporations more political clout, as well as promote their efforts to develop natural resources and win contracts from the federal government.    

“You’re getting five minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes. There’s a very brief window to make our case,” said Presley, about what has become an increasingly competitive environment in Washington. “Anything I can do to help make our case quicker and stronger is pretty much the mandate for the job.”    

Presley says Native corporations are among Alaska’s biggest companies and have an array of business interests that affect more than just their shareholders.   

“Native companies employ not just Alaska Native people, but they employ lots and lots of non-Native Alaskans too,” Presley said, “So they underpin the very fabric of Alaska’s economy.”  

Presley has been a longtime state legislative aide and worked for Sen. Berta Gardner and Rep. Bryce Edgmon.  

Edgmon, who was the first Alaska Native to serve as House Speaker, says Presley’s legislative and state government experience make him a good fit for his new job, one that’s needed as Native corporations continue to grow.  

“Their business portfolios, for some time now, expanded far beyond Alaska — actually in many respects, far beyond the borders of the country,” Edgmon said.

a map of Alaska Native corporations
Congress created 12 regional Native corporations and more than 200 village corporations, when it passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971.

Alaska has 12 regional corporations and more than 200 village corporations. Congress created them to end the battle over Native land rights and clear the way for the trans-Alaska Pipeline — and in the process, also provided Alaska Natives with a way to reap economic benefits from the resources around them.   

In 1998, Carl Marrs formed the ANCSA Regional Association’s predecessor, the ANCSA CEO’s group. At the time, Marrs was president and CEO of the CIRI Native Corporation.  Although each of the regional corporations faced different challenges, they came together to navigate regulatory hurdles and influence state and federal politics.  

“I think it’s a wise move to create this new position,” said Marrs, who is currently president and CEO of Old Harbor Native Corporation, a village corporation.   

Up until now, Marrs says, the Alaska Federation of Natives has been the main political advocate for Native corporations, but as their business interests have grown larger and more complicated, he believes more voices are needed in Washington D.C.    

“The House of Representatives changes out every two years,” Marrs said, about the constant need to help lawmakers understand the special status of Native corporations.  

“They don’t understand being a Native corporation versus a corporation owned by a billionaire,” said Marrs. “They don’t understand that Native corporations exist to help improve the lives of their shareholders.”    

Presley, ARA’s new government affairs director, says it’s also not widely understood that Native corporations are also part of Alaska’s story. That’s something he hopes to change.   

“It’s not perfect, and there were a lot of troubles in the beginning, but it’s a fascinating story,” Presley said. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted back in the 70’s what Native corporations would look like today. They were just an idea.” 

But today, Presley says, Native corporations provide a multitude of government contracting services and have become some of the most diverse companies in the world.

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