CIRI: A Word from the President

Every Alaska Native person with a living memory of the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) has a story to tell.

Some remember gathering their birth certificate and Certificate Degree of Indian Blood document and enrolling with an Alaska Native corporation. Others recall the act ushering in an exciting time of growth and development for the state of Alaska, from the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System to the creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund a few years later. For some, the memories are personal. CIRI Board Assistant Secretary Katrina (Dolchok) Jacuk was a young girl when ANCSA passed, and she remembers using her first CIRI dividend check to purchase a new bicycle.

To tell my story, I must go back in time long before ANCSA passed.

My mother was an Alaska Native person of Gwich’in Athabascan descent, born and raised in Fort Yukon, Alaska. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was 13, after which time she was taken from her village and enrolled in the Eklutna Boarding School.

We’ve all heard stories of the neglect and abuse that took place at Alaska Native boarding schools. The removal of generations of Indigenous children created intergenerational trauma that continues to impact Alaska Native and American Indian people today. For my mother, her way of life was basically erased. She couldn’t wear her traditional clothing; she was punished if she spoke her native language. Her pride in being an Alaska Native person was stripped away.

Fast-forward to my childhood, and I didn’t know I was an Alaska Native person. We lived in Kodiak, Alaska, when I was a young child, and heritage and culture were not discussed. I was 5 years old when my family moved in 1970 from Kodiak to Glenrock, Wyoming. I vividly remember the day my mom said, “There’s something going on in Alaska. I’m not sure what it all means yet, but it concerns Alaska Native people and we need to be a part of it.”

Since my mother was from Fort Yukon, we enrolled with Doyon, Limited, the Alaska Native regional corporation of Alaska’s Interior. Shortly thereafter we started receiving checks, but I was still a child and didn’t understand the implications of ANCSA or what it all meant.

We moved back to Alaska several years later and settled in Seward. In a tragic repeat of history, just as my grandmother had passed away when my mother was 13, I, too, lost my mother when I was 13.

It wasn’t until high school that a guidance counselor encouraged me to enroll in a leadership program for Alaska Native students. That’s when the tide began to turn for me—not only acknowledging my Alaska Native heritage but beginning to take pride in it.

My brother John was an original CIRI enrollee, and he urged me to apply for a job with CIRI after college. I started working for the company in 1993, and it was at that time I began to understand more fully the mission of Alaska Native corporations and the precedent ANCSA had set forth.

At the eve of the 50th anniversary of ANCSA, I am thankful. There is still work to be done, because there are still Alaska Native people like my mom who never knew pride in their heritage. If she were alive today, what would she think? Would she be proud to be an Alaska Native person? Would she tell her experiences, her stories, maybe even speak her native language to her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren?

There’s still opportunity to continue to tell the story, and that’s why I say our work is not done. Our young shareholders and descendants have stories to tell too, and one day this company will be theirs. We want them to be part of it. While I have an immediate family, our CIRI family is part of my family as well, and I cherish and welcome all members of this special family.

Warm regards,

Sophie Minich

Read more on CIRI’s website.