Though CIRI shareholder Clinton Ray Lageson (Kahtnuht’ana Dena’ina Athabascan) spends much of his time collaborating with and advocating for Alaska Native and American Indian (AN/AI) people across the U.S., his heart is at home with his Tribe and his family.
Clinton is connected with CIRI through his mother, original enrollee Doris Jean Lageson. His maternal grandparents are the late Eli Darien Sr. and Marie Alex Darien Moon of Kenai, Alaska. His father, Allan Lageson Sr., is of Norwegian descent. Clinton lived in Anchorage until he was 13, at which time his family moved back to Kenai.
Kenai is a predominately white community, with AN/AI residents composing less than 10% of the total population. As a young person, “my Alaska Native culture, especially growing up around my grandmother, was really strong,” Clinton recalled. “But during my school years, it began to feel like something I shouldn’t be proud of. It took leaving Kenai and Alaska to realize that my culture is the most important part of my life.”
Upon graduating high school in 2002, Clinton and his wife—who was expecting the couple’s first child—relocated to Niagara Falls, N.Y. He studied business administration at Niagara County Community College, earned his journeyman ironworker license and attended pipe-welding school. The family returned to Kenai in 2011.
Federally recognized as a sovereign, independent nation in 1971, today Kenaitze Indian Tribe (KIT/the Tribe) has approximately 1,680 tribal members who live primarily on the Kenai Peninsula. KIT’s programs and services include health care, tribal justice, early childhood education, an Elders’ center and social-service programs. Clinton’s mother had served as a Tribal Council member, but it was only after working in Southwest Alaska that Clinton decided to get involved himself.
“I was working a construction job out in Tununak and I witnessed a lot of disparities among the Native people – losing subsistence rights and their culture and language,” Clinton recalled. “At that point, I decided to throw my name in the hat for KIT’s designated housing authority. I was appointed to the housing board, and two years after that, I ran for Council.”
Clinton has served on KIT’s Tribal Council as its treasurer since 2015. He was re-elected for a third two-year term in October 2019.
“I think the treasurer position is one of the most important roles if it’s done strategically and is in line with the objectives of your people,” Clinton explained. “When you’re applying for grants or other funding and you’ve identified sovereignty rights, culture, identity and subsistence as your overarching objectives, and everyone from the executive director on down is on the same page, whether you’re in the same room or scattered across the U.S., you’re always working toward that collective vision.”
In 2017, Clinton was elected Alaska Area vice president alternate for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). A nonprofit organization founded in 1944, NCAI seeks to be the unified voice of tribal nations. It is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities. Its membership is comprised of AN/AI tribal governments, tribal citizens, individuals, and Native and non-Native organizations.
“During my time as alternate, I really placed importance on understanding the organization and what collaboration meant,” Clinton said. “At my first board meeting, I put out that to learn the needs of other tribes in Alaska and across the U.S., I would work for them in Washington, D.C., when I was there. I just wanted to collaborate with tribes and really get to know their issues, and the only way I’d get to do that was by understanding their needs and really advocating for them.”
Upon his election as alternate, Clinton discussed with the KIT Tribal Council, his Elders, and NCAI Alaska Area board and committee members Jerry Isaak and Mike Williams Sr. the possibility of securing the NCAI treasurer position in two years’ time.
“I knew I wanted to work into the treasurer position, but I wanted to do it respectfully,” Clinton said. “I didn’t want to do it through politics and the Western thought process; I wanted to be transparent and respectful of the current treasurer. I didn’t want to seem like the young, arrogant one coming in at the last minute to put my name in the hat, so I started talking about it right away.”
In October 2019, Clinton achieved his goal of being elected NCAI treasurer. “For me, it’s about collaborating with tribes and truly, in an honest way, putting myself out there, living my traditional values and working at unifying our people across the country,” Clinton said. “There are times we get divided. If we focus on our common bonds—education, health care, land, language, sovereignty, subsistence and tradition—we would have an easier time collaborating.”
Clinton is grateful to KIT, and especially his family, for their support. “When I’m going through things, I’m talking to my Tribal Council and they’re able to really direct me in a positive direction, along with my Elder advisors,” he said. “There are a lot of people who have supported me in a positive way; David Harrison (tribal relations specialist for Southcentral Foundation) has been a huge support. My wife Jessica also takes on a lot so I’m able to do what I do.
“Culture and family are my safe places; it feels like that’s where I get my self-care,” Clinton continued. “When I won the NCAI election, it was a real positive thing, but all I could think about was returning home and cooking up some moose backstrap and rice and celebrating with my family at home.”