CIRI Spotlight: Denise Morris

In December, CIRI shareholder Denise Morris became president and CEO of First Alaskans Institute. She left the Alaska Native Justice Center, where she served as president and CEO since 1999. First Alaskans Institute is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance Alaska Native peoples and communities through community engagement, information and research, collaboration and leadership development. Morris is a tribal member of the Aleut Community of Saint Paul Village.

Where are you from and who is your family?

I grew up in Anchorage – I lived in Mt. View and attended Mt. View Elementary, Clark Junior High, East High School, Lathrop in Fairbanks during the construction of the pipeline and graduated from Chugiak High School.

My father, Leroy Boies, lives in Wasilla – he is a very special person; very proud and supportive of his family. My mother, Virginia Kochergin O’Donnell, was born and raised on St. Paul Island. My mother was a strong, independent woman. I believe I inherited inner strength and determination from her.

I am married to William Morris, have two wonderful daughters, and three granddaughters.

How did you get to where you are in your career?

With the support of my family and other individuals and mentors who encouraged me to pursue my educational goals. I worked full time and attended the University of Alaska Anchorage – graduating with a bachelor’s degree in justice and a minor in history.

What motivates you?

A challenge, positive change, making a difference in the lives of others, connecting people and ideas.

How was your transition from the Alaska Native Justice Center to First Alaskans Institute?

The transition has been exciting! Since coming on board, our 2011 Public Policy Fellowships completed their service in legislators’ offices; our Summer Internship program is in full swing; our Alaska Native Policy Center has been active in the legislative redistricting process; we are continuing to use and refine our indigenous dialogue models for hosting meaningful and sometimes difficult conversations; and we are busy planning for the 2011 Elders & Youth Conference.

The Board of Trustees and staff have been welcoming and I truly value the opportunity to be involved in and influence the education, economic and social issues that impact our future as indigenous peoples at the policy level. I am also excited to continue supporting and mentoring young Native leaders through the Native Emerging Leaders Forum, our Leadership Development program, which has over 200 alums and is almost an ‘academy’ at this point, and the future generations of Alaska Native leaders by continuing to host the annual statewide Elders & Youth Conference.

What is your vision for First Alaskans Institute and what are your plans to implement it?

At First Alaskans Institute we look to our past and present as the springboard for our future. Our Board has defined a clear vision for our work – “Progess for the next ten thousand years…” It is a large task, but one I am excited to be a part of. We must remember our peoples have been here for thousands of years and have left us a great blueprint, ‘best practices’ if you will, by which to move forward. For First Alaskans Institute this concept emphasizes that our foundations have been built and it is our role to strengthen our future.

With an organization built on the recognition of and tie to our peoples and cultures, the implementation of our vision is built around a solution-oriented and strength-based approach. We focus our efforts on:

      • The development of leaders
      • Connections between Elders and youth to ensure knowledge transfer and cultural learning
      • Growing empowered and connected decision-makers
      • Community engagement that includes investing in our communities
      • Ensuring Alaska Native peoples and issues are represented and empowered in the policy-making process
      • ‘Native minds shaping the future’ by doing indigenous designed and led research and studies that empower Native and other decision-makers on important issues that impact our lives, and
      • Hosting conversations that matter using indigenous principles of engagement and dialogue.

With this focus, the First Alaskans Institute is well poised to meet our mission and vision. Working in this dynamic environment is invigorating as we begin to shake off the economic downturn of the past two years. I look forward to our exciting work together, advancing our Alaska Native peoples and communities.

If anyone would like to know more about First Alaskans Institute, please visit our website at or give us a call at (907) 677-1700.