When LeeAnn Cooper Garrick (Unangan/Aleut) was a young teen, her father picked her up after school one day and took her to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to apply for her Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) card. CDIB cards enable cardholders to prove eligibility to receive certain benefits, such as higher-education scholarships, health care and housing assistance. Receiving one is also the first step to gaining Tribal citizenship.
“My dad told me, ’You need this card, but don’t tell anybody that you’re Native,’” LeeAnn recalled. “I went through high-school in the ‘80s—blonde, big hair—and most people didn’t even know.”
LeeAnn’s father, CIRI shareholder Russell Isaac Cooper, was born on a neighbor’s kitchen table and grew up in Ninilchik. He moved to Anchorage as a teen and attended and graduated from Anchorage High School (now West Anchorage High School) in 1959. “Growing up, my father was not at all open about being an Alaska Native person,” LeeAnn said. “When he was a kid, it was still the time of ‘No dogs, no Natives,’ and he faced a lot of racism. His mother’s heritage was Scandinavian, and he has lighter skin, so it was easy for him if he just kept his head down. But he grew up in a really poor Alaska Native family and he kept his heritage to himself.”
Today, as chief operating officer of Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), LeeAnn celebrates her own heritage and helps Alaska Native and American Indian people residing in Southcentral Alaska reach their full potential through an array of support services, including education; employment and training; family preservation; support for individuals recovering from addiction, substance abuse or incarceration; and workforce development. And she’s passing on that sense of pride to her daughter.
“My daughter’s 10, and when she was in kindergarten, her class celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” LeeAnn recalled. “She wore a kuspuk and I wrote her this little note that said, ‘This is who you are, and this is where your family comes from,’ and I stuck it in her pocket. My husband Lincoln and I really try to make her very aware of why it’s important to be proud of who you are and why it’s important to express yourself.”
LeeAnn’s own path to self-acceptance began in college, where her education was supported by The CIRI Foundation, and was nurtured at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), where she worked for 16 years. “Working at ANTHC, and now CITC, Alaska Native identity is so incredibly celebrated,” she said. “Who you are—no matter what region you come from, your community, your Tribe, ‘how’ Native you are—it doesn’t really matter. It’s given me a lot of confidence in that area and I’ve been able to share that with my daughter.”
A member of the Ninilchik Natives Association Inc. (NNAI) and Kenaitze Indian Tribe, LeeAnn spent her early childhood in Petersburg, Alaska, before moving to Eagle River. She attended the University of Alaska Anchorage, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. In 2003, she applied for a job as a technical writer with ANTHC but was hired as the administrative services unit supervisor for its Division of Environmental Health and Engineering.
“When I applied to ANTHC, I was told, ‘We have technical writing here, but we think you should actually take this other job (administrative services unit supervisor).’ I had been offered a job as lead technical writer with an insurance company, so when ANTHC called me back, I told them, ‘Thank you so much for interviewing me, but I think I’m going to take this other job.’ The guy on the phone is like, ‘Just a minute.’ He closes his office door and says, ‘You should come work here.’ He talked to me for 45 minutes, and when I got off the phone, I’d accepted the job with ANTHC.”
LeeAnn’s 16-year career with ANTHC ran the gamut. She worked in various positions for the Division of Environmental Health and Engineering for 10 years, where a large part of her job was managing financing, procurement and funding sources for clean water and sanitation projects in rural Alaska.
In 2008, LeeAnn earned a second master’s degree in public administration. While working on that degree, she collaborated with Cook Inlet Housing Authority on a research demonstration project about Housing First, a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness. The approach is guided by the belief that people require basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, but still important, such as getting a job, budgeting properly or attending to substance use issues.
“I loved collaborating with CIHA, and I decided that my dream job was working for a CIRI-affiliated nonprofit,” LeeAnn said. “But I was so busy that I was tunnel-minded at ANTHC. I oversaw all campus facilities and had a really amazing team of people who were the experts; I was the person they went to when they needed some leadership or support. When I left, I was the vice president of administrative services for the Alaska Native Medical Center (which ANTHC co-owns with CIRI-affiliated nonprofit Southcentral Foundation).”
LeeAnn’s chance at landing her dream job presented itself last year, when a colleague sent her the application link for the COO position at CITC, along with a note that read, “Your dream job is out there.”
“My experience at ANTHC was exceptional but the time to move on felt right,” she said. “When CITC called me to come in for an interview, my hands were sweaty. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I doing this?’ But it was absolutely the right move. Interviewing with the team the first time, seeing how they interacted, how much they care about participants—I left thinking, if they offer me this job, I’m taking it.”
As COO, LeeAnn oversees CITC’s direct services programs, including Child and Family, the Clare Swan Early Learning Center, Employment and Training, Recovery and Reentry, and Youth Empowerment. “We have amazing teams here,” she enthused. “When I got here, I was like, oh yes – I’m just going to immerse myself in all the things that we do.”
At nearly 80 years old, LeeAnn’s father attended an NNAI dinner for the first time this winter. “He’s super proud of everything ANTHC has done,” she said. “When I told him that I’d moved over to CITC, he asked me, ‘Is (CITC President and CEO) Gloria O’Neill as nice as she looks in her pictures?’ When I told him she’s even nicer, he said, ‘I’m so glad you moved over there.’
“I can’t say why my dad is suddenly engaging with his Tribal connections,” LeeAnn continued. “I wonder, as a community and politically, if we’re just generally more supportive of Native perspectives. I know that, for me, it took working at ANTHC, and now CITC, to realize that I’m serving my own people and to start to think about that history and the impact you have on the generations ahead of and behind you. Maybe my dad’s feeling a little bit of that too.”