CIRI shareholder Janie Leask grew up in two worlds. Raised by a Haida/Tsimshian father and an Irish/German mother in Metlakatla and Anchorage, Leask often found herself trying to square the two sides of her heritage and upbringing-Alaska Native and European, urban and rural. Through her work on urban-rural issues and as the eventual President/CEO of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), Leask would turn these divisions into an asset by becoming a bridge between communities. For her achievements in Alaska Native leadership and community building, Leask was recently inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.
“Being nominated is a real honor,” said Leask, who found out in December that she’d been selected for the Class of 2014. “I was humbled and really proud to be among the women who are included in the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.”
Leask spent her formative years in urban Anchorage, away from her cultural roots in Metlakatla. Blonde and blue-eyed, she took after her mother’s side of the family. With little experience in rural Alaska, she is grateful for the many mentors and teachers who helped her traverse the urban rural, Native/non-Native worlds of Alaska.
She began her career working for AFN by helping people get jobs on the pipeline. Soon, she was moving up the ranks as executive secretary for Human Resources, vice president of Land Claims, then AFN vice president before deciding to run for AFN president, a position she held from 1982 to 1989.
Like many Alaskans, Leask went right into the workforce after highschool. She recalled, “I was really driven by getting out and doing something.”
During her career, she was often surrounded by people who had college degrees and initially felt she was somehow lacking because she did not. As she began to see the results of her own work on behalf of Alaska Native people, though, she said, “I quickly realized I could accomplish things that were really important to me, and while a college degree might have helped, not having one certainly didn’t stop me.”
Under her leadership, AFN helped implement the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act and fought for state laws governing access to subsistence resources for rural residents. Leask also guided AFN to become more engaged with young people and to connect more actively with diverse communities.
Serving on the board of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, Leask organized trips to rural Alaska for Anchorage businesspeople, with the goal of helping city-based businesses learn the real needs and issues faced by their rural customers. She also co-chaired Commonwealth North’s Urban Rural Unity Study with former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom. “For me,” she recalled, “the value of these projects was people coming together to talk about issues that impact rural Alaska and how they really impact the entire state.”
For her work on urban-rural issues, Leask was awarded the Alaska Governor’s Award, the Alaska Village Initiative’s Chief’s Knife Award and CIRI Shareholder of the Year. She was also named the2000 YWCA Woman of Achievement and one of 2001’s Top 25 Most Powerful Alaskans.
She says one of her proudest moments was when she and her son were formally adopted into the Tsimshian Eagle Clan, the clan of her father, and she received the Tsimshian name of Gyetm Wilgoosk, “a person of wisdom.”
Leask lives in Homer, Alaska, with her husband, Don Reed, where she hopes to continue building networks of women involved in community issues. She also plays defense for the Homer Divas hockey team.
For more information on the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame, visit www.alaskawomenshalloffame.org.