CHUGACH: Founder Spotlight on Cecil Barnes

Nancy Barnes has an old, faded newspaper clipping proudly pinned to her refrigerator that bears a quote from her father that was published in 1967 in the Cordova Times:

“There has been a lot said lately about the Native Land claims throughout Alaska. Being a Native of this great land and having lived here throughout my life, I note that Native rights have always taken second place…”

At the time of this publication, the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was four years away from being signed into law, but for Cecil Barnes, the wheels for this landmark legislation and the necessity for its passing were already in motion.

Cecil was an Alaska Native from Cordova, Alaska, a devoted father, a decorated war veteran who served with distinction in the Korean War and, prior to the movement that would eventually lead to the signing of ANCSA, he worked as a jet mechanic for Western Airlines.

As the struggle for Native Lands took root, Cecil asked his wife Anna, a Tsimshian Native, for permission to walk away from the security of his job so he could fully devote himself to the cause that would eventually remove Alaska Natives from ‘second place’ and create an equally footing for the Indigenous People of Alaska. Anna gave her blessing, and as the struggle intensified, Anna and Cecil went so far as to mortgage their home to personally fund the ANCSA lobbying efforts.

As the end of 1971 drew near, Cecil and the other Chugach founders fought for the boundaries of the Chugach region, securing the eastern border of Chugach lands all the way to Icy Bay. To the west, hard-fought efforts extended Chugach’s boundaries to the lands around English Bay (Nanwalek), Port Graham and Seward. Later, Cecil was instrumental in leading the charge to have the Village of Eyak officially recognized under the provisions of ANCSA.

For Cecil, once ANCSA was passed and the Chugach lands and villages were established, the work truly began. He continued to push for better ANCSA land selections. Hetirelessly served in leadership roles on the Chugach Board of Directors and in Chugach’s subsidiary companies. In 1974, he helped to establish the North Pacific Rim Native Corporation, which would eventually become known as Chugachmiut, serving as the non-profit’s first chairman.

Since 1974, Chugachmiut has provided health and social services, education, training and technical assistance throughout the Chugach region. The Eyak Corporation and the other Village Corporations within the Chugach region have grown to provide dividends and other benefits to their shareholders, and Chugach Alaska Corporation has grown to become one of Alaska’s top performing businesses, delivering on its mission of profitability, ownership of Chugach lands and celebration of Chugach’s heritage for its shareholders.

Serving on the Chugach Board of Directors in 1988, Nancy Barnes recalled her father’s efforts and the battle he fought against incredible odds to shape the future success of the Chugach region and the greater Alaska Native community. “One of the things that Dad used to say which always sticks in my mind is that ‘Native people deserve to be equal with all citizens’.”

The legacy of Cecil Barnes can be found in the lands he helped to secure, in the regional and village corporations he helped to establish, in the many services that continue to foster the health and wellbeing of the Chugach people, and in the fact that he overcame the challenges of his age and helped to forge the equality that all Alaska Natives now enjoy.