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Shauna Hegna
Shauna Hegna. Courtesy photo
Shauna Hegna: Alaska Native corporations serve tribal communities
Thursday, June 16, 2022

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) mid-year conference was supposed to be a time for gathering and celebration after being kept apart by the pandemic for several years. As Alaska Native leaders, we were thrilled to welcome our Indigenous friends from the Lower 48 to our beautiful homelands as we work toward common goals.

We will still do those things, because there will always be far more that we have in common with one another than there are attempts to divide us. However, we must recognize the unfortunate and unnecessary conflict that has been created at this conference through a continued effort by a handful of individuals that would harm Alaska Native people by marginalizing Alaska Native corporations (ANC). These actions have proven in the past to divide and weaken our broader Indigenous community.

In the well-publicized CARES Act case, the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the rights of ANCs to serve as tribal entities for the purpose of providing benefits to their Alaska Native shareholders under the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA). Having lost the case, some tribal leaders still seek to disregard the critical support ANCs provide Alaska Natives. This message is further amplified in messaging aimed at reducing the role and history of ANCs to that of mere “state-chartered corporations”.

It is true that ANCs hold state charters, but it is horribly misleading in what it omits. There is a reason that the Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest tribal organization in Alaska, representing 158 federally recognized tribes, has called an anti-ANC resolution introduced at the NCAI conference divisive and out of order. By mischaracterizing the purpose and nature of Alaska Native corporations as traditional business enterprises rather than their true, expansive role as Congressionally mandated organizations providing for the economic, social, and cultural well-being of their Alaska Native shareholders, naysayers are attempting to distort ANCs to fit them into familiar boxes.

The problem is that Alaska has never fit into a box. More than fifty years ago, the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act made Alaska a major experiment in Indigenous self-determination, which created organizations never before seen in the Lower 48, or indeed the world. Those organizations have evolved and grown together, becoming a unique constellation of nonprofits, corporations, foundations, and tribes, which all work together for the betterment of our people.

I am the president of Koniag, the regional ANC for Kodiak Island. I am also a tribal citizen of the Native Village of Port Lions. I cannot separate these aspects of myself any more than I could separate my identity as an Alaska Native from my identity as a parent or a small business owner. My experiences in each aspect of my life inform the other, and that is exactly how ANCs work alongside our nonprofits, tribes, and education foundations.

Like a village where everyone, from youth to elder, contributes to the well-being of the community through the tasks they are suited to, that is how our Alaska Native entities make decisions and advocate for people. When one of these groups is excluded from decision-making, the entire system breaks down.

For example, one-quarter of the Alaska Native shareholders and descendants who applied for and received CARES Act support from Koniag are not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. For these shareholders and descendants, Koniag was the only source of support they received during the pandemic. It is also Koniag’s delegation of tribal authority that allows the Kodiak Island Housing Authority to provide critical housing to many low-income Alaska Natives in Kodiak. Without that delegation from Koniag, hundreds of low-income Alaska Natives in Kodiak would be homeless.

As always, Indigenous people have far more in common than what divides us. The key to our collective self-determination remains understanding our differences and the unique strengths they give us, combined with the unity of purpose we derive from our shared values. That fusion is what enables us to reach our full strength.

We must resist the urge to place one another into boxes. Rather, we must remain united to solve the real problems that confront Indian Country.

In my region we say, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” May all of our organizations work together so we may cast our nets farther. By working together, we can catch enough fish to feed all of our families.

Quyanaa (thank you).

Shauna Hegna is the President of Koniag, the Alaska Native Regional Corporation for Kodiak Island. She is also a tribal citizen of the Native Village of Port Lions.

Relevant Documents
NCAI Support for Closely Monitoring Legislation Involving Definitions of “Indian Tribes” in Light of Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation et. al (ANC-22-003)

U.S. Supreme Court Decision: Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of Chehalis Reservation
Syllabus | Opinion [Sotomayor] | Dissent [Gorsuch] | Full Document

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