If you grew up in Southeast Alaska the ANB, or Alaska Native Brotherhood, means something to you. It may simply be a building that you see activity at as you drive past, or it may play a more central role in your memory. My connotations are mostly impressions from childhood. Fry bread and deer stew thick with potatoes…mostly that, but with memories of adults talking and talking and talking.
If you grew up elsewhere you may not have even heard of the ANB and what it has done. If this describes you, allow me to introduce you to a Native political organization established in 1912. It was followed by the very influential Alaska Native Sisterhood, or ANS. In the years since its establishment it has done work that’s affected the lives of every Native in Alaska, and it’s influenced legislation at the national level. Perhaps the ultimate feather in the ANB’s bonnet (I love mixed metaphors) is the visionary civil rights legislation that established the civil rights of Alaska’s Natives long before a similar effort grew wings in our southern states.
I was in Sitka in May of this year as I campaigned for an independent candidate slate for seats on the board of directors of SAI (Shee Atika Inc.). I walked around Sitka, and I do mean walk. Miles and miles and miles. It felt fabulous to be walking around my childhood hometown, but I noticed something interesting; when I walked at random, I consistently ended up at the ANB hall.
The hall was usually empty, but I spent a lot of time thinking about Peter Metcalf’s excellent book A Dangerous Idea. Civil rights is one of the long running fights that the ANB played a predominant role in, but it also focused its considerable ability to fight for Native lands claims, and this is well chronicled in Peter’s book. This effort bore the fruit of ANCSA, the Alaska Native Lands Claim Settlement Act.
My battle, and the battle of a team of amazing and selfless shareholders for a seats on the SAI board could be directly tied back to 1929, in Sitka, when the ANB voted to sue the United States government to settle our land claims. This was a trailblazing effort.
I could go into more detail because I find this story compelling, and as a Tlingit trying to become knowledgeable about ANCSA, I am very grateful to have read it, but I will spare the casual reader the details. It’s fair to say that the ANB was an irresistible force for 42 years, and it moved national and state policy via its ability and commitment.
I struggle to reconcile my admiration and undying respect for the ANB with what ANCSA has brought us. What is so stark for me is the language of ANCSA that addresses with finality of the loss of our land. This is the bill that ends a 10,000 year claim to out homeland.
“All aboriginal titles, if any, and claims of aboriginal title in Alaska based on use and occupancy, including submerged land underneath all water areas, both inland and offshore, and including any aboriginal hunting or fishing rights that may exist, are hereby extinguished.”
While the language of ANCSA includes some things that might appeal to the Native being affected such as a clear statement that the legislation will not remove the congressional duty to provide opportunities for cultural and physical welfare of Alaska’s Natives, it also states that this is the single effort the government will make to settle our claims to our land. In perpetuity. It means that from my ancestors who followed the receding glaciers into Haa Aani, the Tlingit homeland have entrusted me with a legacy, now expressed in the form of two corporations, Shee Atika Inc. and Sealaska Inc.
It was financial concerns that woke me up to problems with Shee Atika, but my time as an independent candidate shined a laser sharp focus on fundamental, critical omissions in Alaska state law. What’s illuminated is that when Congress and the state legislature were politicking on ANCSA, the federal leadership told Alaska’s delegation that for them to support ANCSA, the state would need to create laws that would effectively bring ANCSA corporations under guidelines much like the national SEC regulations, but tailored to the unique nature of Alaska’s Native corporations.
The state delegation said absolutely. This will be done.
This was never done.
The lack of follow-up from Congress and the lack of action from the State of Alaska has created a little eddy where a lack of rules gives a nearly insurmountable advantage to sitting boards. They craft bylaws and they craft the election processes to be advantageous to themselves. One Alaskan journalist observed that ANCSA corporations have “self-electing boards of directors”. With a bully pulpit, the stamp of authority, and essentially unlimited access to corporate funds, incumbent directors often have to die for there to be a vacancy. Often, the board will select someone to finish the term of the deceased director. This selectee is “made” at that point. They will forever owe their seat and their allegiance to the board.
It is my observation that there is a unique apathy with many. if not most, ANCSA shareholders. I think that this apathy is partly based on our cultural norm of showing respect to authority and elders, and for many of us, both describe many of the directors of our corporations. There is another component of this apathy, and that is an understanding of how futile it is to seek change in either the composition of the board, or to even get them to seek us out as owners of the corporation they’ve been entrusted with. Those without a voice often simply quit trying to speak.
In addition to having the power and prestige of sitting on a board, ANCSA directors have crafted a process which allows the corporation to receive proxies from the share holders. Called discretionary voting, this process places a huge block of power in the already powerful hands of the sitting board.
I have seen many of these abuses from up close, but as I tried to get more knowledgeable about ANCSA I came across Native individuals from at least four regions of the state who had jousted the windmill that is a sitting ANCSA board and faced a host of abuses. The widespread nature of this problem shows that it is structural and endemic. These problems require a systemic answer.
This brings me back to the ANB, a mental version of my wandering feet in Sitka. I think that it is clear that the current state of ANCSA was not the ideal that our ancestors in the ANB and ANS fought for. It is also clear to me that the Alaska Native Brotherhood’s job isn’t finished in regard to Alaska Native’s lands claims.
There is no better organization for this mission. Perhaps some tribal governments and even the AFN (Alaska Federation of Natives) have developed comfortable relationships with ANCSA boards. Turning to those who hold the purse strings is to be expected, but it’s the ANB’s autonomy that places it in a perfect position to honor the vision of our ancestors and fight for shareholders and the future generations.
I don’t want to stand at the sidelines and simply question those in play. With this in mind I will be joining the ANB. My voice will be just one of many, but with a servant’s heart, I have will lend whatever ability and energy that I possess to calling the Alaska Native Brotherhood to this fight.
If you are a shareholder who sees the structural problems with ANCSA and you feel compelled to act, please consider joining the ANB or ANS.