Shareholder Spotlight: Thomas Yates

CIRI shareholder Thomas Yates stands between the headstones of his great-uncle, Chief Nicholai I, and great-grandfather, Chief Nicholai II, who was known as the last recognized Athabascan chief of Ch’aghalniki (Point Possession, Alaska).

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, CIRI shareholder Thomas Yates (Athabascan) wanted to fight. “When I went to enlist, I was told my ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test scores were high enough that I could become an officer and attend West Point, but I told the recruiter no—all I wanted to do was fight for my country.”

As part of the first combat unit to go into Iraq in 2003, Thomas did just that. But little did he know the real fight would begin once he returned home.

Thomas inherited CIRI shares from his grandmother, original enrollee Virginia McMillan, whose family originally hails from Point Possession, Alaska. His mother, Janice Yates, is also an original shareholder. Thomas was born and raised in Oklahoma.

After graduating high school in 1997, Thomas came to Alaska on a CIRI-funded placement with one of Peak Oilfield Service’s stick-picker crews. He enjoyed the work so much that he returned the following summer. “We worked 10-hour days, seven days a week, but it was fun and good money,” Thomas said. “I’d only been in Alaska once before, so establishing that personal connection as a young adult really made a difference as far as my level of engagement with CIRI.”

In 2002, almost a year to the day after the 9/11 attacks, Thomas walked into an Army recruiter’s office. After signing up, he trained as a cavalry scout, graduating basic training in February 2003. He was assigned to his unit in early March and one week later was deployed to Iraq.

Thomas’s unit performed reconnaissance missions, one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. Recon units gather intelligence, scout out enemy areas, perform dismounted patrols and conduct route-clearance operations.

In 2003, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency developed a set of 52 “most-wanted” playing cards to help troops identify the prominent individuals in Saddam Hussein’s regime. “We were looking for those people,” Thomas explained. “We were some of the first troops to go through the Anbar Province—Fallujah, Haditha, Ramadi—trying to find them.”

Thomas was in Iraq about a year when the Humvee he was riding in hit a ditch and flipped. He was thrown from the vehicle and sustained a traumatic brain injury, rotator-cuff tear, back injury and three broken ribs.

“I was hurt bad enough that I couldn’t do my job anymore,” Thomas said. “The Army told me I could stay in and work behind a desk or get out, and I said I wanted out.

“Even with everything that happened to me, for anyone who wants to enlist, I say go for it,” he continued. “I liked being with the guys, the camaraderie, getting to see the real story as opposed to what’s on the news. Most of the Iraqi people we dealt with were some of the best people I’ve met— very kind, very giving. I knew I couldn’t get that experience sitting behind a desk.”

After serving three and a half years, in 2006, Thomas was honorably discharged and given a 100% disability rating from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

What followed were dark times.

“We did a lot of bad stuff (in Iraq), and I had lots of mental health problems,” he said. “On my unit’s second deployment, which I wasn’t part of because of my injuries, we lost a lot of men. When I got home, I acted as if nothing was wrong; what I did for a long time was drink, just kind of self-medicating and trying to destroy myself.”

This went on for about five years. “What changed my life was when my wife and I adopted our daughter in 2012,” Thomas said. “She’s full-blooded Sioux Indian, and the birth mother chose us in part because I’m a Native person. Four years later, we adopted her biological brother. We adopted them both as infants and now they’re 7 and 4.”

In May, Thomas graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a social sciences degree. He recently landed a job with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in permanency planning, which entails returning children who have been removed from home as soon as is safely possible or placing them with another legally permanent family.

Thomas has served on CIRI’s Shareholder Participation Committee since 2017 (his term expires June 2020). With the goal of increasing two-way communication between CIRI and its shareholders, identifying issues of immediate and long-term importance to shareholders and descendants, and educating shareholders and descendants on the corporation’s mission and values, business operations, corporate policies, shareholder and descendant opportunities and other matters, the SPC provides a vital link between CIRI and its shareholders.

The SPC is comprised of three subcommittees – the Anchorage Committee; the Alaska Committee, made up of shareholders who live in Alaska outside of Anchorage; and the Lower 48 and Hawaii Committee. Thomas serves on the Lower 48 and Hawaii Committee.

When he was in Alaska for the June SPC meeting, “I heard them talking about the CIRI C3 Experience and told them I wanted to help, so they flew me up as a chaperone. I was there the whole time and slept in the boys’ cabin. I thought it was fun; I love kids and relate to them. After camp ended, one of the kids asked for my email so we could correspond. We still talk every other day.”

Though he resides in a predominately white community, Thomas works hard to instill cultural pride in his children. “Last year, my daughter came home from school and asked me, ‘Why am I darker than everyone else?’ I told her, ‘You’re more special than everyone else,’ and explained to her how she is Native American and how our people were here before any of these other people were here.”

“One of the reasons I wanted to serve on the SPC is so I could come to Alaska, visit with family and try to learn more on my own,” Thomas said. “If you’re a shareholder who lives outside Alaska, try and learn as much as you can. Look at the website. Call and ask questions. Everyone is helpful. You can even email the individual SPC members. There are so many opportunities, including educational funding through The CIRI Foundation.”

For a list of current SPC members and their contact information, visit www.ciri.com/shareholders/being-a-shareholder/shareholder-participation-committees/current-members. For information on educational and career-development funding through The CIRI Foundation, visit www.thecirifoundation.org.