A word from the president: ANCSA creates opportunities while preserving values

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA) has been a guiding light in my life since its passage. As a young adult I made the decision to become a CIRI shareholder and later to work for the company. Today I am honored to serve as president and chief executive officer of CIRI, an ANCSA-created corporation that provides significant wealth and benefits for its shareholders.

ANCSA started as land struggle between the competing interests of misaligned state, federal and private concerns and the rights and needs of Alaska Native people. The land claims debate gained energy when Alaska Native leaders realized the devastating impact the state’s land selection of more than 100 million acres under the Statehood Act would have on their people’s land rights. Settling the claims grew into a national priority after oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay and developers needed to build the 800- mile-long Trans Alaska Pipeline System. These historic events and others provided the unique convergence of circumstances that enabled ANCSA’s passage and the allocation of 44 million acres of land and $1 billion cash to benefit current and future generations of Alaska Natives.

Congressional and Alaska Native leaders were unified in their rejection of ideas that required the creation of reservations or sustained government oversight, intervention or resource allocation to satisfy Alaska Native claims. After much debate, ANCSA drafters chose the capitalist business model to guide the settlement because it provided a sustainable solution for stakeholders’ needs without reliance upon government grants, allocations or handouts that generally fail to incentivize permanent solutions and depend upon political will that can change every election cycle.

Drafters embedded capitalist values into ANCSA by forming for-profit Alaska Native corporations (ANC) that provide self-determination to Alaska Native people by creating opportunities for development and increasing value for all stakeholders in the form of jobs, dividends and economic growth.

We are fast approaching the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Act. This milestone surely will generate debate about ANCSA effectiveness and some arguments that the corporate model somehow inhibits Alaska Native traditions and spiritual values. I agree that regional and village corporations make decisions that balance profit making with cultural values, but I submit that no ANC focuses all of its attention on the bottom line.

Instead, I think ANC’s incorporate traditional values into their daily decision making, and they certainly commit significant resources to supporting traditional values. CIRI, for example, has given millions of dollars to create, initially fund and support a family of nonprofit service providers that serve CIRI shareholders’, descendants’ and other Alaska Natives’ social, educational, healthcare and cultural needs. These nonprofits provide needed services and education programs that reflect traditional Alaska Native values. Also, the indigenous value of sharing is enshrined in ANCSA’s resource revenue sharing requirement through which hundreds of millions of dollars have been shared among the corporations.

ANCSA has also empowered Alaska Natives (and all Alaskans) by turning the traditional Alaska business model on its head. Ever since the Russians arrived, the model was for outsiders to exploit Alaska’s resources and export their profits out of the state. This has been the case with the fur trade, gold mining . . . and most recently the oil industry. This model is not sustainable and the outsiders eventually leave and take their revenue with them. ANCs are reversing this model by doing business in Alaska, throughout the United States and around the world and then bringing their profits back to Alaska to create local jobs and pay dividends to Alaska Native shareholders, most of whom live in the state.

Finally, ANCSA also ensured that Alaska Natives, collectively through their respective ANCs, own valuable and significant properties throughout Alaska. Some of these lands are sacred. Some are important for subsistence plants and animals. And some of these lands will never be used for economic development. But ANCSA ensures that Alaska Natives get to decide, in a collective manner, which ANC lands will be preserved and which will be considered for development through the actions of boards of directors of ANCSA-created corporations.

Consequently, I believe that ANCSA is more successful than not because it creates opportunities, not entitlements for Alaska Natives. It provides us with opportunities to thrive and succeed in life by using our own hard work, intelligence and good luck. And it empowers us to participate and compete in the state and national economies by doing business, generating jobs, earning profits and distributing appropriate dividends, all while taking into account traditional values and balancing the needs of current and future generations of Alaska Native shareholders.