As Alaska Native people, we have always valued education.
For generations, intricate knowledge has been passed from elders to children. Education was the best way to stay alive, to live well as a human being, and to care for our family and community. I recently came across a quote from a Yup’ik elder who stated that our knowledge is our strength. What we learn as young people stays with us, and will not desert us when we need it.
In more recent history, this high esteem for knowledge and education led to the creation of a remarkable web of organizations that I believe is unique to Alaska: the Alaska Native education foundations and scholarship programs.
In the past 30 years, each Alaska Native regional corporation has helped to shepherd an education foundation or robust scholarship program that provides access to life-changing workforce training and higher education for its shareholders and descendants. The result is tens of millions of dollars in scholarships to Alaska Native people that have improved not only the recipients’ individual lives, but their communities and the state as a whole.
We see the result of this commitment with highly educated and skilled Alaska Native teachers, business owners, local and statewide leaders, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, healthcare workers and more. We see it within Alaska Native corporation leadership and all levels of the broader public and private sectors.
Since the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971 and our subsequent incorporation in 1972, Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) has emphasized access to education and workforce training for our shareholders through scholarships. In 1992, BBNC launched the BBNC Education Foundation (BBNCEF) with a relatively modest $250,000 investment. Today, with additional investments from BBNC and contributions from other donors, our endowed fund has grown significantly. But more important than the endowment itself is what it’s allowed us to do – provide more than 4,000 scholarships totaling $7.1 million to our students pursuing both higher education and vocational training goals.
As a scholarship alumna myself, I can tell you that these scholarship dollars mean open doors and opportunities. They mean good-paying jobs, a bright future, strong communities, and, for many, leadership positions across all sectors that help shape the trajectory of our state, country and world.
Of course, ANCSA itself did not specifically mandate scholarship programs. ANCSA created a dozen for-profit, Alaska Native-owned regional corporations and more than 200 village corporations in exchange for settling Indigenous land claims, the largest such settlement in United States history. The act represented a seismic policy shift away from previous federal policy and its legacy of Indian reservations in favor of creating the first Alaska Native owned and managed for-profit corporations.
All of the 12 ANCSA regional corporations and many of the village corporations created scholarship programs because our Elders recognized then, and today, the importance of knowledge and education as ways to create good lives and pathways for our people.
When I have asked our Elder leaders about why they chose to create scholarship programs to serve our communities, the answer is usually simple – they knew it would be hard for Alaska Native students. So, they wanted to create as much support as possible for students to succeed in higher education, and that often meant helping financially with scholarships. It also meant providing moral support needed for students to persist through, often in the face of systemic racism and hardships that their white counterparts would not experience.
BBNCEF’s goal is to advocate for our students and help them individually with whatever they need to get across the finish line. For some, that means help navigating the higher education landscape, such as tracking dates, deadlines and forms. For others, it’s care and support in the face of homesickness. Our goal is to ask each one of our students, “How can we help you succeed?”
Fifty years ago, ANCSA opened new opportunities for Alaska Native people. Since then, Alaska Native corporations have continued to work hard to prioritize education and opportunity for our shareholders. BBNC Education Foundation is proud to be a part of this legacy.
Aleesha Towns-Bain serves as the executive director of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) Education Foundation, which provides support for BBNC shareholders to pursue educational opportunities and to promote and preserve cultural heritage. She is of Alutiiq descent and lives with her family in Anchorage.