A Foot in Two Worlds

Sitka in 1904, each house a clan house, center of power and wealth.

Sitka in 1904, each house a clan house, center of power and wealth.

I am a shareholder in Shee Atiká Incorporated, a regional corporation established under the Alaska Native Lands Claim Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971.

Sitka has been a part of the Tlingit homeland for thousands of years. Before the first recorded contact with Russian explorers, or “pre-contact,” the Tlingit based their society around a moity, clan and house system. Under this system the Tlingit flourished, becoming a powerful and vibrant society.

While the Native nations of the lower 48 were often forced off of their land under treaties, the United States government made no such treaties with the Native people of Alaska, excluding a single reservation on Prince of Whales Island.

ANCSA supposedly addressed this issue. Rather than approach it as a “government-to-government” issue, the act set up regional corporations. Perhaps it is cynical, but I believe that this was done to uncouple the source of power, the wealth of land ownership, from the traditional and powerful leaders of the Native people. As it disempowers the effective system that held US interests at bay for so long, it created a structure that seamlessly interfaces with powerful corporate interests in the nation.

There is a sad irony that this occurred in Sitka, the birthplace of the incomparable Alaska Native Brotherhood, established in 1912 (8 years after the photo above was taken), and shortly thereafter, the Alaska Native Sisterhood. Peter Metcalfe discusses how this organization changed the face of Alaska’s treatment of all of its Native people in his excellent book, A Dangerous Idea. ANB Grand Camp #1 sits on Front Street, almost certainly where Tlingit canoes were once beached when Sitka was among the most powerful villages in SE Alaska.

ANB Grand Camp No. 1, Sitka, Alaska, courtesy of Wikipedia

ANB Grand Camp No. 1, Sitka, Alaska, courtesy of Wikipedia

The Tlingit people struggle to maintain a balance between preserving our culture and being successful and effective in a massively predominant Western culture. We see leadership problems with Shee Atiká, but we are trapped by our cultural concepts of respect; we are taught to respect authority, and we are taught to respect our elders. Certainly the executives and board members are in positions of authority, and for many of us, these people are our elders. This is another example of where Western and Tlingit culture fail to mesh. It is also the nature of living in, or coming from, small towns that it is not possible to be act without the knowledge that our ties to other community members will cause ripples and unintended consequences. This is even truer within the Tlingit community, with another complex layer of family and social ties at play.

A culture of apathy has become the norm regarding the operation of our corporation. This is a sad comment on a generation which was handed a legacy of dynamic, innovative and strong leadership. If Peter Simpson or William Paul, leaders from the ANB’s crucial 1920’s period were to come back, could we look them in the eye and say “I have taken that which was given to me, and made it better”?

I think our ancestors wouldn’t accept the act of corporate leaders insulating themselves from the wishes of their shareholders through “discretionary voting”. This allows shareholders confused by the proxies that they receive, or simple apathy, to pass control of their votes over to the board of directors. Once elected to the board, the desire to be in good grace with the other board members in order to secure these discretionary votes can derail efforts to change the corporation’s direction.

There are many red-flags in the direction that Shee Atiká leadership has taken our corporation. A group of shareholders has established a Facebook group, and members have cataloged a host of concerns, from small to egregious. The tone is honest and respectful, and very appropriate to who we are as a people.

My sense is that there is a groundswell of concern and empowerment underway. In my opinion it is well warranted and overdue. It is true to the legacy from the Tlingit men and women who bravely stood up and seized power and initiative.

I humbly ask you my fellow Shee Atiká shareholders to look into yourselves and see if you are knowledgeable about the direction of our corporation and some of the valid concerns that are being expressed. If you are like me, you may find that there is room for improvement.

We are not shareholders in the common sense of the word. We are the owners of not just a corporation, we are caretakers of our land and power for the generations to come.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Gunalchéesh, gunalchéesh!

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