One Day In The Life Of A Native Chief Executive

Part II

By Byron I. Mallott

"One Day in the Life of a Native Chief Executive," Part II, by Byron I. Mallot, Alaska Native News (October 1985) v.2, p. 22. Used with permission of the publisher, for educational purposes only.

"Alaska's future is not about economic tides and mortar and brick. It is about Alaska's people and how they choose to live together."

"As we proceed together along the path of 1991, let us look through and see beyond our current circumstance. Let us make the debate one of creating from the promise and difficulty of our past and our present a vision of the Alaska of our future. Let us make how we wish to live together as citizens of Alaska the central issue. This to me is the challenge and the promise of 1991." —July 15, 1985

It is now early afternoon. Just as I rise to open my office door, the phone rings at my desk.

It is the Alaska Chamber of Commerce calling to extend an invitation to be a speaker at a Pacific Rim business symposium. The symposium will be featuring Alaska and will be held in California several months from now. I check my calendar which is usually full months in advance. I find the date free and agree to attend. The subject I’m asked to address is Native corporations and their contribution to the Alaska economy.

I am in no hurry to open my office door now. I take a few moments to think.

For many ANCSA corporations there has been little success and the land which attracts the greatest attention from the public and business community is a subject of strong internal debate among ANCSA shareholders. Can Native corporations, other than a few of the very successful, survive over time as strong business entities? Will they contribute significantly to the economic future of the state? I look to the past and see reason for grave concern.

ANCSA, when signed into law in 1971, promised great opportunities, or so everyone thought. But most of the $962 million dollars was not received and distributed until the late 1970s after a period of high inflation. That meant the investment value of ANCSA dollars was seriously diminished by the time they were received. Although the state of Alaska prepaid a significant amount of its share, high inflation in 1979 continuing through the early 1980s eroded its value quickly. High inflation also prompted the stringent antinflationary policies of the government which produced the worst U.S. economic recession since the Great Depression. Natural resource and export industries were hardest hit and have not recovered. Today these same industries are faced with a strong U.S. dollar abroad and continuous weakening markets.

ANCSA corporations began their business existence during this period and many have been hard hit. In this business environment only the strong, experienced and the competitive survive. ANCSA corporations are babes in the woods. Given the excruciatingly complex litigious and costly implementation of ANCSA, the lack of corporate experience among Alaska Natives, and the disastrous economic times; odds were against ANCSA corporations from the beginning. To have believed that ANCSA corporations would keep the land from risk, operated profitably from the start and change the economic status of their shareholders was wishful thinking. Yet Native people believed it; certainly Congress seemed to have believed it along with much of the general public. Among those who knew better are a significant number ready and willing to take advantage of this unique time and circumstance, adding to the overall difficulty.

To dwell on these matters allows for excuse-making. I shift my reverie to the bright side for these thoughts are depressing me. It is heartening to realize that despite these years of difficulty Native corporations still own the land. There are notable business successes among the corporations, and many gain strength and profitability with each passing year. I resolve to go to California and give an upbeat assessment of the business future of ANCSA corporations.

My secretary opens the office door and I glance out the window at the mountains surrounding Juneau. I wish for old-fashioned windows that open and the chance for a long breath of fresh air. I am reminded that the President of Sealaska Heritage Foundation is here.

We discuss the foundation’s programs, including a Tlingit language computer program, which will hopefully be of great assistance in teaching language in schools. We also cover Sealaska’s shareholder scholarship program funded by Sealaska and administered by the foundation. Hundreds of shareholders have been awarded scholarships. Coupled with our shareholder intern program and shareholder hire policies, the corporation has provided educational and career opportunities that would not otherwise have been available from the business community.

Our conversation is enthusiastic as we discuses plans for the third celebration of Southeast Native culture and heritage. The first two celebrations brought together hundreds of Native dancers, historians, linguists, and clan leaders from throughout Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimpshian country. The celebrations were broadcast statewide and have been credited for a significant increase in level of interest, understanding and appreciation of Native life in Alaska. The meeting concludes with our mutual promise to stay in touch. We both recognize that the press of corporate business is making it more and more difficult to do so.

The afternoon proceeds and the in-basket recedes as the out-basked grows. The reading stack hasn’t diminished much though, neither has my ongoing frustration at not being able to keep up with all the periodicals, newspapers, magazines, and trade journals. They all seem to be important for staying informed.

After meeting with Sealaska’s senior executives — our chief operating officer, chief financial officer, and vice president of administration — I am able to keep up with what is happening throughout Sealaska today. I find it remarkable that all of us are together in the office at the same time since corporate officers and staff often spend a lot of time on the road among the subsidiaries.

It is late in the day and my thoughts return to ANCSA. A number of amendments to ANCSA are being developed by the Alaska Federation of Natives for submission to Congress. At the same time the Interior Department is completing a required review of ANCSA for submission to Congress, and Justice Thomas Berger is finalizing a report of his exhaustive review of ANCSA done for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

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