Descendant Spotlight: Sam Schimmel

CIRI descendant Sam Schimmel with former Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe. Photo courtesy of Sam Schimmel.
CIRI descendant Sam Schimmel with former Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe. Photo courtesy of Sam Schimmel.

“I want to be a lawyer, so let’s try this out.”

Those were Sam Schimmel’s thoughts when he decided to apply to 2016 Color of Justice (COJ). A CIRI descendant originally from St. Lawrence Island and now living in Seattle, Sam spends his summers in Alaska berry picking, fishing, hunting and engaging in other subsistence activities. “In the villages, you see a lot of injustice. I want to fight that,” Sam said.

The COJ program aims to get female and ethnic minority students interested in the legal profession. CIRI’s Bruce Anders, vice president and general counsel, has been part of the program for several years and immediately noticed the lack of rural and Alaska Native students participating. In 2015, CIRI resolved to change this.

“We launched an effort to bring motivated Alaska Native students from rural parts of the state to Anchorage to experience COJ, calling it the Color of Justice Rural Alaska Initiative,” Anders said. CIRI worked closely with the other 11 regional corporations, the Alaska Native Justice Center and COJ organizers to fulfill the initiative. Thanks to the flexibility of the Alaska Court System and COJ staff, half of the 2016 COJ student population was reserved for 40 rural Alaskan students who were flown to Anchorage free of charge to participate in the program. One of those students was Sam.

At COJ, “Sam immediately distinguished himselffrom the other students, rural and urban, all of whom were intelligent and motivated kids,” Anders said. “Already knowledgeable about many intricacies in the law, he attacked Color of Justice with a thoughtful, inquisitive approach, intent to learn as much as he could while helping other students who sought his leadership.”

“Color of Justice was really great,” Sam said. “One highlight was meeting (Former Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court) Dana Fabe. Attending the two-day program and talking with her, it really cemented the idea I want to go into law.” Sam also found the program practically useful. “I’m in a mock-trial class now and they are taking months to cover what we learned in two days.”

Sam describes himself as belonging to three communities. “I spend part of the year in Alaska with my relatives – half are Kenaitze Indian from the Kenai Peninsula and the other half are Siberian Yup’ik from St. Lawrence Island. The other part of the year I go to school in Washington State, where I have no relatives and no Alaska Native classmates.” Sam is connected to CIRI through his grandfather, shareholder Russell Wilson.

He laments the barriers young Alaska Native people face in connecting in a meaningful way with their culture and heritage. “In Gambell, (young people) trade tradition for drugs, alcohol and video games. In Kenai, they try to be popular and fit in socially. Outside Alaska, they’re alone with tradition. Losing or not having tradition leaves an empty space that gets filled too often with poor choices. I see that more than anything else in each of my communities.”

Not one to sit idly by, this high-school junior works to effect change “to the maximum extent possible by helping Alaska Native people achieve justice and sovereignty, and retain cultural identity, in a fast-paced and evolving world,” Anders said.

In addition to COJ, Sam served as a youth panelist for the Western Region Generation Indigenous Youth Conference, where he joined U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in signing a bill to create a commission for Alaska Native children. He was chosen as a youth delegate for the Tribal Nations Conference where he spoke before his Native peers about environmental and climate-change challenges facing Arctic communities. National Public Radio sought him out to discuss the impact of suicide in Alaska Native communities. And he met with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to advocate for government support during subsistence emergencies.

Last summer, Sam worked at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., on a slide collection containing biological and botanical research on St. Lawrence Island. In addition to organizing and cataloging the slide collection, he also conducted additional research when he returned to Gambell for the summer.

For his dedication to improving the health, safety and overall well-being of young Native peoples, in late 2016 Sam was named to the Center for Native American Youth’s (CNAY) 2017 class of Champions for Change. It’s an honor similar to the one bestowed upon Greg Razo, a CIRI shareholder and company executive, in 2016.

This month, Sam will travel to Washington, D.C., for a week-long series of recognition events and meetings. “This year, we received an overwhelming number of applications for the Champions of Change program,” retired U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, who founded the CNAY, wrote in a letter. “Sam was selected as a Champion because of the quality of his application and the tremendous impact of his efforts.”

Giving a voice to his peers, connecting family and community and preserving the lands, culture and traditions of his Alaska Native heritage – these are Sam’s passions. “Sam is a leader and will affect change for the better wherever he goes,” Anders said.

“His vision is boundless, his energy inexhaustible.”

About 2017 CIRI Color of Justice

CIRI is pleased to announce that, based upon the success of the national Color of Justice program, it will hold a similar Color of Justice program exclusive to CIRI shareholders and descendants in grades 9-12. The CIRI COJ will feature hands-on learning activities designed to promote awareness about our legal system and potential careers in law and the judiciary.

Anders sees the CIRI COJ program as a powerful tool to expose Alaska Native students to a vastly underrepresented legal profession. “Alaska Native people make up about 14 percent of the Alaska population,” he said. “There is no reason they shouldn’t be at least equally represented in the legal profession – in the bar and on the bench.”

The CIRI COJ program will be held Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 (an in-service/no-school day for the Anchorage School District) at the Fireweed Business Center in Anchorage. If there is sufficient interest from Kenai-based students, a second Kenai version of the CIRI COJ program will be held Friday, Feb. 10, 2017 (an in-service/no-school day for the Kenai Peninsula School District) at the Kenai Quality Inn.

Applications must be received by 5 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 1, 2017. This year, one lucky COJ attendee will win an Apple iPad Air 2!

To apply, visit www.ciri.com/shareholders/ descendants/color-of-justice.