When CIRI shareholder Greg Encelewski was a boy, his son, Ivan, also a CIRI shareholder, says, “The rivers were full; you could practically walk across the water on the backs of King salmon. My generation, the rivers were still pretty plentiful. But my kids are growing up in a totally different atmosphere.”
As the executive director of Ninilchik Traditional Council (NTC), CIRI shareholder Ivan Encelewski has a lot on his plate. But fighting for subsistence rights for the people of Ninilchik has been one of his main concerns. It’s also part of what drew his father, Greg, back into local Alaska Native politics. After serving as one of the first presidents of the Ninilchik Natives Association Inc. (NNAI), an ANCSA-designated village corporation, Greg worked for 28 years on the North Slope. Now he’s the acting CEO of NNAI and serves as the president of the NTC board of directors. “I swore I would never get involved with politics again,” he says, “but I’m back, and the corporation is growing and doing good things.”
In fact, with his son at the helm of NTC, relationships between the two organizations and the community as a whole are “like night and day from a few years back. There’s much more comradery, good feeling and working together.” Ninilchik has come a long way from the time when disagreement and unresolved issues between the two organizations stood in the way of progress. Today, the village boasts more opportunity and support for its population than ever before.
“I guarantee if this Tribe wasn’t here, this community would have dwindled. We’re proud of not only the employment we’ve been able to provide through the Tribe and our for-profit endeavor, but of making those positions the kind people want to come back for.”
— Ivan Encelewski
While NTC offers services that range from housing, health, social services and education—not to mention being one of the area’s largest employers—NNAI is involved with several business ventures, including a general store, an energy company and gravel sales. The corporation has about 350 shareholders now, and Greg’s focus is on bringing those shareholders together, generating dividends and creating jobs that will keep people in the community.
“We’ve accomplished a lot by providing services, and when I say ‘we,’ it’s the whole Tribe in partnership with the community, and it’s been a lot of effort,” Ivan says. “I guarantee if this Tribe wasn’t here, this community would have dwindled. We’re proud of not only the employment we’ve been able to provide through the Tribe and our for-profit endeavor, but of making those positions the kind people want to come back for.”
He points to young people, like Whitney Schollenberg, who grew up in Ninilchik then moved away for education (see “Local Perspective”). Some, like Schollenberg, end up returning to the village to pursue local jobs and invest in the community they remember.
But a key to retaining a sense of heritage, Ivan says, is maintaining the subsistence way of life—and that’s one battle that he and his father are still waging.
“As important resources dwindle, that sense of community and that cultural aspect will wane,” he explains. “And that’s concerning because I think that’s a lot of what brings people back, too—those things they’re attached to, the beauty and the resources and the subsistence here.”
Recent years have seen clam digging close on beaches near the village because of low numbers of razor and other clams. Locals have fought for subsistence fishing rights and for the right to set a net in the Kenai River. “It’s been a long and arduous battle,” Ivan says. “We started with trying to get an early season for moose hunting, and we’ve slowly made gains, but it takes years to fight the system.”
“It’s an issue of food rights and food security,” adds Greg. “The younger generations have been taught by their Elders to smoke and eat fish—it’s part of our diet and part of our culture, part of our whole spirit.”
To maintain that part of the local culture, Ninilchik will keep seeking fair subsistence regulations. In the meantime, NNAI and NTC are doing what they can to keep growing local opportunities and strengthening relationships. “I think that’s what’s been most beneficial for the whole community,” says Ivan. “Being on the same page, getting rid of infighting—working together to move forward.”
As a high school basketball star, when Whitney Schollenberg glanced into the stands during a game, she would see her whole community. “Basketball was a really big deal here,” she says. “Ninilchik is a small town with a tight-knit community, and basketball was the center of what brought us together.”
Schollenberg, now 30, remembers the kindergarten through 12th grade Ninilchik School fondly, in part because her mother was a teacher there and her father served as her team’s basketball coach. After ten years away from her hometown, she’s returned to find it the same small, family-oriented community she remembers.
“There are definitely people from here that say, ‘I’m moving and never coming back,’ but I was never one of those,” she says, explaining how she found herself buying a house a mile and a half down the Sterling Highway from her parents’ place. “I’ve always loved it here.”
Between graduating from high school and becoming a stay-at-home mom to two small children, Schollenberg attended the University of Alaska Anchorage and earned a degree from Eastern Oregon University before landing a job at The CIRI Foundation and running her own photography business. Now, with her husband running his own surveying business, she focuses on raising their kids and on her position as the youngest member of the Ninilchik Traditional Council board of directors.
“They snatched me up as soon as I moved here!” Schollenberg says. She’s using her first board position to emphasize the role of education in her community, and the effort has been “a big learning curve.” She sees opportunities to expand on the Tribe’s current programs—like the community garden, the educational fish net and the teen center—and to include more community members in the Tribe’s efforts.
“When your population is so small, a handful of people is a lot,” Schollenberg admits. “But I think it helps, especially with the youth, to have a younger person walking the walk and getting involved.”
Of course, there are challenges. The council works hard to create opportunities for people, but the interest isn’t always there. “You hope that when you present someone with something to do, you’re going to get a ton of people who want to do it, but the reality of living in a small town is people are busy or they’re only here part of the time.”
It takes a certain type of person to live in such a small, remote community, she points out. As with many villages in the Cook Inlet region, there’s not a lot to do in Ninilchik unless you make the effort to look. Schollenberg makes the effort.
“There are definitely people from here that say, ‘I’m moving and never coming back,’ but I was never one of those.”
— Whitney Schollenberg
“In the winter, there’s not much; then again, most everyone I know skis or ice fishes or rides their snow machine,” she says. In the summer, there’s fishing—Schollenberg worked with her father, a set-net fisherman, until she graduated from high school—and clamming, though recent efforts to increase the dwindling clam population have shut down popular beaches.
Still, the customs Schollenberg remembers from her own childhood are already being passed down. Her three-year-old son asks on a regular basis when he’ll be able to go clam digging again. “It hasn’t taken long for traditions like that to be instilled,” Schollenberg says. “You don’t get that kind of thing in a big city.”