A word from the president: ANCSA Anniversary highlights need for Alaska Native Studies programs

Congratulations are in order, both to CIRI shareholder Maria Williams, who has just been selected as the head of Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), and to UAA for making this wise choice. Maria is coming home to Anchorage from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she has been a professor teaching indigenous studies. (Please read more about Maria in the shareholder spotlight section of this issue of Raven’s Circle). Maria’s return to Alaska to lead this important function comes at a good time as we prepare to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) later this year.

A generation is typically considered to be twenty years, making it now two generations since the passage of ANCSA. It is imperative that each generation of ANCSA shareholders and their lineal descendants understand and appreciate the circumstances that led Congress to pass ANCSA in 1971. As importantly, this history-making piece of legislation should be more broadly understood by all Alaskans. Led by an Alaska Native scholar, my hope is that Maria will improve the reach and relevance of UAA’s Alaska Native Studies programs so that a more robust understanding of the historic events that led to the passage of ANCSA and the four decades of history since ANCSA’s passage is achieved by the university and its students, including those students that are or will become CIRI shareholders.

At CIRI, we should not rely only on UAA and similar institutions to tell our history. We need to continually refresh for our shareholders the company’s own history. Recording well and remembering clearly is not an easy task, as the pace of business has picked up and the company has grown larger. But as the ANCSA anniversary approaches later this year and CIRI’s own 40th anniversary next summer draws closer, watch for more concerted efforts to document our company’s history.

CIRI looks to the university system not just to do a better job of teaching Alaskans about ANCSA, but to provide many opportunities for Alaska Native students to pursue their goals for higher education. CIRI has expressed its interest here through its long history in supporting higher education. In its early days, CIRI supported education through its affiliated nonprofit organization, Cook Inlet Native Association, which awarded scholarships and provided various social services to shareholders living in the Cook Inlet region.

To step up its support of education for its original shareholders, CIRI formed The CIRI Foundation (TCF) in 1982 and provided an endowment to TCF in 2000. TCF has since expanded the definition of qualified recipients to include lineal descendants of the company’s original enrollees. The first TCF awards were made in 1983. Since then, including the awards made through April 2011, TCF has made 11,688 awards to recipients totaling over $18 million.

CIRI also has singled out three UAA programs for special attention because these programs not only directly assist Alaska Native people, but provide benefits to the company and its subsidiaries and affiliates. Those programs are the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP), the Culinary Arts, Hospitality/Dietetics and Nutrition Program and the Native Arts Program.

ANSEP is a groundbreaking program that helps Alaska Native people achieve successful careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The program works with students in middle school and high school to prepare them to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in one of the previously mentioned fields. With the company’s increased emphasis on energy and energy development, a pool of scientifically trained Alaska Native young adults will be very beneficial.

UAA’s Culinary Arts, Hospitality/Dietetics and Nutrition Program is important for CIRI’s tourism operations. CIRI Alaska Tourism Corp. (CATC) operates three lodges in Alaska, the Seward Windsong Lodge, the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge and the Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge, that recruit every year for culinary and hospitality positions. This UAA program is an excellent source of trained Alaskan applicants to fill those positions.

The Native Arts Program is a recent addition to UAA’s Department of Art. Internationally renowned Sugpiaq painter and sculptor Alvin Amason developed and is instructing the program courses. Amason was the director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Native Arts program from 1992 to 2008 and is a director of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. Providing a venue where Alaska Native students of art are guided and encouraged to pursue their art while earning a college degree will not only strengthen Alaska Native culture, but will provide additional employment opportunities for these students.

Each of these programs important to CIRI produces a skilled, innovative workforce that is needed to attract and maintain Alaska business development. Working together with UAA’s newly invigorated Alaska Native Studies program, this workforce will hopefully exit the university system with a better understanding of the role that ANCSA plays in their development, their success and their future opportunities.