Growing up steeped in Alaska Native politics has given CIRI Shareholder Fred S. Elvsaas Jr. (Aleut) a unique perspective on the history, culture, challenges and opportunities facing Alaska Native regional and village corporations.
Fred’s grandfather, Fred H. Elvsaas, served on the CIRI Board of Directors and helped establish Seldovia Native Association (SNA) in the early 1970s. “Anyone who knew my grandfather would tell you that Alaska Native politics was all he talked about,” Fred chuckled. “We lived in Seldovia, but our family set-net site is near the Kustatan River. He had a captive audience when we were out setnetting, so by the time I was 18, I kind of learned, well, I mean, a lot of what there was to know about Alaska Native politics and ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) and everything else.”
One of seven villages in the Cook Inlet region, Seldovia is accessible only by a 15-minute flight or a 45-minute ferry ride from Homer. Its fewer than 300 residents still largely rely on commercial fishing for their livelihood. Fred lived in Seldovia until he was 18, describing the tight-knit community as “a kid’s paradise.”
“There was always something going on, between the boats, crab fishing and halibut fishing and cod fishing, and then taking off and going salmon fishing in the summer,” Fred recalled. “It was always busy, especially if you were a kid; you could always get a job somewhere doing something. You’d fish king salmon in the slough and longline halibut in the bay, and then take off first thing in the spring and head to fish camp and come home right before school started.”
“Growing up, I definitely identified as an Alaska Native person,” Fred continued. “In Seldovia, that’s just the culture—subsistence, sharing what you have with Elders, seasonal work and living in harmony with your environment.”
After moving to Anchorage, Fred began working for VECO Corp., an oil pipeline and construction company. In 2009, he hired on with NANA, the Alaska Native regional corporation for northwest Alaska. He started out as an estimator, rising through the ranks to project manager and then general manager. Since 2016, he has been at the helm of NANA Construction.
“There’s never a dull moment, and growing up in a commercial-fishing family, I’ve always kind of operated at this intense pace,” Fred said. “We do rural housing fabrication. We build oil field process modules, pipe racks, schools, 350-man camps. We do turnarounds at mines and oil and gas facilities. We’ve got work at the refineries down on the Kenai Peninsula, offshore oil and gas—things like that. It’s a 24/7 job, and we’ve grown a lot. We’re running 365 days a year, day and night shifts at all these different mines and facilities.”
Fred credits his “awesome wife,” CIRI Descendant Brittany A. Elvsaas (Athabascan), for taking on the bulk of family life and responsibilities so he can devote his time to work. And together, they are committed to instilling pride in Alaska Native culture and heritage in their four children, who range in age from 22 to 6. “With us, we live it,” he said. “When salmon fishing opens, we’re already over on the west side of Cook Inlet at our fish camp. You’re on the beach; your entire life revolves around the weather. And as far as seal hunting and commercial fishing and doing those types of things, those are things that we try to instill in our kids and get out there and go and do.”
Fred’s mother, siblings, aunts and uncles still reside in Seldovia, and he makes quarterly trips from his home in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley to visit family and attend meetings of SNA, for which he serves as board vice president.
Fred said SNA has experienced “phenomenal growth” since he joined the board 20 years ago. Current business operations include the Dimond Center Hotel in Anchorage and a tour group based in Palmer, Alaska. The corporation also recently wrapped up the process of identifying and making an inventory of carbon offset credits for future sales. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, we didn’t have any money,” Fred said. “And now we’re looking at setting up permanent funds and getting things to where we can pay dividends in perpetuity. It’s been a fun 20 years—a fruitful journey from where we started to where we are now.”
Fred inherited CIRI shares from his grandfather, Fred H., as well as an “uncle,” Reuben B. Ingram, who also lived in Seldovia. “At the end of the day, you’re proud of your regional corporation and the things they do, and same thing with your village corporation,” Fred said. “People hear you’re a CIRI Shareholder and you belong to a highly respected company, and it’s a good thing—something we can all be proud of.”
Fred is also a current member of CIRI’s Participation Committees, which seeks to increase two-way communication between the corporation and its Shareholders and Descendants.
By dividing the land into village and regional corporate holdings, ANCSA planted the seeds of a conflict within the Native community over the capital versus subsistence value of land. Over the last decade, CIRI’s management has made it a high priority to find opportunities that fall within our joint best interests and to work cooperatively with the Cook Inlet region village corporations. In February 2013, CIRI conveyed more than 200,000 acres of 12(b) lands to CIRI village corporations, ending the long process to finally convey the major land entitlements to CIRI villages.
Fred acknowledges the past — “the way the land-selection process worked under ANCSA, it’s almost like it was designed to create conflict between the regional and village corporations” — while remaining hopeful about the future. “What I’ve seen over the last 10 years is closer alignment,” he said. “It’s noticeable how much the relationships have improved. People are getting together in the same room, having conversations, making business deals. I think the younger generation has realized we’re all in this together. We’re focused on opportunity rather than conflict.”