Music was always part of Ricky Lind’s home growing up in Dillingham. His parents, aunts and uncles held monthly Bible studies and hymnal songfests, called “singspirations,” between their homes. His dad and uncles played guitars and his mom and aunts sang.
“My cousins and I grew-up like this, so music became second nature for us; we would often join them in performances at church and other singspirations including the annual Native Musicale here in Anchorage,” Lind says.
Those family gatherings laid the foundation for a lifelong love of music that Lind turned into a career as a music and band teacher, thanks in large part to scholarships he received through Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation.
A BBNC shareholder, Lind obtained his bachelor’s degree in Music Education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and his principal certification and master’s degree in Education from the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“I would not have gotten this far if not for my scholarships,” Lind says. “I have never taken any student loans.”
After he completed his bachelor’s degree, Lind returned to Dillingham and taught music. He later was encouraged by mentors, advisors and others to move to the Anchorage School District, and has since taught in various urban school settings, including a language immersion school, a Waldorf-inspired school and a neighborhood school. Along with his experience in Dillingham, he says he’s had a “panoramic view of Alaskan public education.”
Lind recalls vividly a guest speaker in high school who spoke about “hunting” for scholarships. Lind took that advice to heart, applying for every single scholarship he could find. Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation also funded his Waldorf teaching certificate, which is the equivalent of a master’s degree.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA) created a dozen for-profit, Alaska Native-owned and managed regional corporations and more than 200 village corporations in exchange for settling Indigenous land claims. It represented a major federal policy shift away from the Indian reservation system in the Lower 48.
While ANCSA didn’t mandate scholarships and heritage programs, all 12 regional corporations and many of the village corporations have independently created them. The ANCSA Regional Association, which represents the regional corporations, notes approximately $100 million has been awarded to shareholders and descendants through 54,000 scholarships for college and vocational-technical education to date.
It was incredible foresight from Elders decades ago that created the opportunities of today, says Christina Darby, a Bering Straits Native Corporation shareholder.
Darby grew up surrounded by family and a strong connection to her ancestral home in Unalakleet. Her mother, Ella Anagick, and aunt, Gail Schubert, both graduated from Stanford University. “They were really the trailblazers,” Darby says.
Her mother is a practicing attorney in Anchorage, and was the first traditionally raised Alaska Native woman to pass the Alaska bar exam. She serves on the board of Bering Straits Native Corporation. Her aunt Gail is the president and CEO of BSNC. The sisters were two of nine children.
Despite the strong family mentors, Darby’s path to becoming a medical doctor was far from easy. Medical school costs more than most houses in Alaska. In addition to stellar academics, scholarships were essential.
“Part of putting yourself out there and applying for scholarships is that it reinforces the work that you’re doing,” Darby says. “It gives you confidence, because sometimes, quite honestly, it can feel like you don’t belong.”
Darby is Inupiaq and Tlingit. She’s a tribal member of the Native Village of Unalakleet, and a shareholder of both Bering Straits Native Corporation and Sealaska. With the help of her scholarships, Darby earned her undergraduate degree at Stanford, following in her mother’s and aunt’s footsteps. From there, she got into the WWAMI program, a University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine partnership with Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. She completed her first year of medical school at UAA and the rest at UW in Seattle. Internships, residency and fellowships took her to several Western states (she met her husband Anthony on a medical rotation in Idaho). They had their first child, a son named Stone, when Darby was working as a sleep medicine physician and neurologist at Virginia Mason Medical Center.
The hectic pace of Seattle and concern that Stone was missing out on family had Darby longing to return to Alaska.
“I knew that would be really positive, having our kids grow up around cousins and family,” Darby says. The couple have since had a second child; a daughter named Hazel.
The Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC) hired her in 2016 as its only full-time sleep medicine physician. ANMC in 2018, with Darby leading the effort, opened a fully accredited sleep center, with its own sleep lab integrated with a clinic for adult and pediatric patients. The Alaska Federation of Natives noticed her work, and honored Darby with its 2020 President’s Award for Health.
Darby deflects credit quickly to Elders and other mentors. She says she couldn’t have obtained any of this without scholarships, including from BSNC. The assistance allowed her to complete her undergraduate education without major debt. That, in turn, allowed more freedom to seek the path she was passionate about.
“If I had not been able to receive the scholarships that I was fortunate to receive, my future right now would probably look pretty darn different,” says Darby.
Similar kudos come from artist and educator Joel Isaak, a Kenaitze tribal member and CIRI shareholder from Soldotna. He notes that scholarships from The CIRI Foundation helped him tap into a deep-seeded longing to learn more about his culture, language and regalia.
He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture from UAF, followed by a Master of Fine Arts at Alfred University in New York State. Isaak’s unique use of different materials–salmon skins, wood, ceramics and bronze—explores culture and history, often through large installations or sculptures. His deep dive into language, first with his tribe and now as a PhD student in Indigenous Studies at UAF, is an extension of his art, he says.
“The art and the language really feed each other,” Isaak says. “Language revitalization work is pretty intense. You’re dealing with historical trauma, language loss, abuse–all the things that go into why our language isn’t spoken today.”
Isaak’s dissertation will focus on literacy, specifically on creating a culturally relevant method for comprehension of the Dena’ina language. His ultimate goal is to become a fluent speaker. Language and art are both incredibly important for instilling pride in culture and heritage, he says.
His scholarship from The CIRI Foundation (TCF) allowed him to obtain his undergraduate degree without debt, a tremendous relief for a young person starting out a career in the arts, he says. “Going into art, it’s a bit of a step. It’s not a linear path, where you go into a career and retire with a pension years later.”
TCF also enabled him to take a short course in learning a specific ceramic glaze process mid-career, an important part of the program that supports workforce development and technical training, Isaak notes.
“A big aspect for me is that I didn’t have to leave Alaska to be successful in Alaska,” says Isaak, who also teaches as an adjunct professor at Kenai Peninsula College. Giving back through his artwork, language revitalization and tribal liaison work through the state Department of Education and Early Development are all part of what Isaak sees as a journey of lifelong learning.
Shamai Thacker, a Chugach Alaska Corporation descendent and Chugach Heritage Foundation scholarship recipient, sees herself as a lifelong learner as well. Thacker grew up in Clam Gulch disconnected from her Native heritage, and it’s only through Chugach Heritage and a cultural identity program at UAA that she’s been able to reclaim that part of her life.
Her parents in Clam Gulch provided stability and much love, but money was tight. Often, she and her brother would miss school to help the family with commercial fishing, their main source of income. She wanted to go to college to become an English teacher, and loved to write poetry and prose on the beach, overlooking the ocean.
“My mother told me she didn’t think we could afford college. I didn’t know scholarships were a ‘thing.’ I thought that was it,” Thacker says.
Thacker moved away after graduating high school and married her husband Bryan in 2004. She worked different administrative assistant and temp jobs over the years and, after a brief stint in Fairbanks, began taking classes toward an associate degree at UAA to further her on-the-job training. She’d heard of Chugach Heritage Foundation, but questioned if she “deserved” a scholarship due to a lack of connection to her Native roots. Thacker’s biological father, who was Inupiaq and Tsimshian, didn’t play a role in most of her life due to his struggles with alcoholism.
She decided to apply for that first scholarship, thinking it may be her only chance for financial help with school. At first, her relationship with Chugach Heritage was mostly transactional. She continued on in her studies and earned a bachelor’s degree from UAA, then later a master’s degree. She and her husband were blessed with a son, Kelby, in 2019. She loves her job as an eLearning Portfolio Strategist at UAA, helping professors deliver online classes. The position became central for many UAA professors and their students during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the sudden shift to online learning.
Meanwhile, Thacker’s relationship with Chugach has grown into something very special over the years. In particular, she singles out Stephen Grantier for his mentorship and support through many academic and personal challenges, including her mother’s fight against cancer.
Her parents’ divorce and losing contact with her biological father meant that she was raised by her white mother and stepfather. “I grew up without Elders, I didn’t hear the stories that traditional Alaska Natives grow up hearing,” notes Thacker, who hopes to continue her studies through a doctorate program in Indigenous Studies at UAF. “Chugach was really there for me. I probably would have dropped out of school a long time ago if it weren’t for them.”
Through a cultural identity program at UAA, Thacker met an Elder who knew her paternal grandfather. It turned out they both had worked together at Chugach. She reveled in the stories about the grandfather she never knew.
“Again and again, it comes back to Chugach. Chugach has been so connected to my life, and not just through scholarships,” she says. “They’re the central line of my ancestry. One of my big goals is, how do I give back to Chugach? They have really been there for me.”
Lind, the music teacher, expresses a similar sentiment toward BBNC. Like many scholarship recipients, he wants to give back in a way that will help Alaska Native people. One way to do that is through his profession.
Lind is a board member of the National Education Association-Alaska, an NEA Leader of Color, and a member of the NEA Education Diversity Collective, a working group whose mission is to develop strategies to recruit and retain diverse educators. Whether it’s teaching music, leading a school band or working through NEA, Lind sees himself as a positive role model for Alaska Native youth.
“My hope is that more Alaska Natives see that if someone from Dillingham can do this, they can, too,” he says. “BBNC and the others probably do not know the positive impact their funding had on my personal life, professional life, colleagues, and students—I wish they can see what I see every day. My goal is to be an everlasting return on their investment.”
In just 50 years since ANCSA’s passage, Alaska Native corporation education foundations and scholarship programs have made a notable difference in providing opportunities for Alaska Native people.