Alvin Osterback remembers the day vividly. He was out on Shemya Island overhauling an engine when a Reeve Aleutian Airways flight landed, and a flight attendant with an envelope sought him out requesting his signature for the document inside. He signed and returned the document to her. She asked him why the document was so important that it had to be flown 1500 miles to Shemya just for a signature.
That document was a $500,000 check. It was the first dispersal from the United States government to The Aleut Corporation, newly formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). As The Aleut Corporation’s first vice president, the then 21-year-old Osterback’s signature was needed so the newly formed regional corporation and the region’s village corporations could stand up and commence operations.
Fifty years later, moments like this are poignant, underscoring the extraordinary nature of ANCSA, its passage, and the incredible circumstances – political, personal, and geographical – that led to the formation of Alaska Native corporations which continue to benefit Alaska Natives and the Unangax̂, or Aleut people.
Setting the Stage
Alaska’s vast geography had a starring role in the events leading up to ANCSA and the creation of twelve Alaska Native corporations in 1971. That immense distance was especially felt in the Aleut Region which spans over a thousand miles into the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
The five original incorporators of what is now The Aleut Corporation (TAC) – Alvin Osterback, Michael Swetzof, Iliodor Philemonof, Lillie McGarvey, and Charles Hoff – ended up serving on the first Board of Directors for the primary reason that they were in Anchorage at the time.
“Most of these boards that started back then were started by whomever was available,” Osterback said in an interview. “It was all new. It was exciting to be a part of; none of us knew exactly where we were going, but we knew we had to start putting it together.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s as the movement toward addressing Alaska Native land claims ramped into high gear, it is important to note that communication and technology was nothing close to what it is now. The frantic final weeks and days prior to the signing of ANCSA on December 18, 1971 saw things moving quickly, which made engaging and connecting with people in the far-flung regions of the Last Frontier incredibly challenging.
“Back then, some areas didn’t even have phones,” Osterback recalls. “If you were going to correspond with people, it sometimes had to be by mail.”
Communication and distance were some of the reasons the five incorporating members of TAC, originally called the Aleut League, ultimately agreed to serve on the board. The Aleut Region is the farthest west of the twelve Alaska Native regions, and inclement weather and distance made flying throughout the Aleutian Islands intermittent and very challenging. Being based in Anchorage, these five board members were able to communicate more easily with each other and other Alaska Native leaders, as well as monitor the developments in Washington, D.C. more closely.
It is that context which underscores the arrival of the Reeve Aleutian Airways flight into Shemya that winter day in early 1972. All five of the founding board members were under the age of 30 and found themselves in an opportune moment, as spectators to and participants in history.
After the Signing
“When ANCSA passed, many people thought, ‘We did it!’ as in, we finally got our settlement,” Osterback said. “Looking back, some parts are definitely good. But the corporations definitely had a rough beginning.”
To start with, the corporation concept was brand new to Alaska’s indigenous peoples and Osterback recalls that acquiring a knowledge of processes, making corporate decisions, and overseeing operations were challenging at times.
Osterback and Swetzof recollect that after signing the check and formally spinning up the regional corporation, they traveled to all the villages and communities along the Aleutian Chain to explain to their people what had transpired. They also assisted with the process of setting up village corporations and enrolling shareholders.
“There was a lot of confusion initially,” Osterback said. “We had to form lands committees to select our portion of the 40 million acres. That and enrollment took quite a bit of time. We were blue collar workers just trying to do the right thing. And while it took a while to grasp all of the concepts and develop good people to run the corporations, everybody’s hearts were in the right place.”
The five-member board quickly hired a business manager and an attorney, taking advice from a guidebook for newly formed Alaska Native corporations put together shortly after the passage of ANCSA. The board members were able to reach every village and community except for Atka, which they routinely missed due to inclement weather which made travel, only available by air or sea, nearly impossible.
“Once we formed the regional corporation, we went to every village to help set up the village corporations,” Swetzof remembers. “Usually, we got around by any means we could: boats and planes as the weather permitted.”
In November 1972, after almost a year, a new TAC Board of Directors was formally elected, and while Michael Swetzof and Lillie McGarvey stayed on to serve additional terms, Osterback, Philemonof, and Hoff rotated off the board. Osterback ended up returning to serve on the board in 2000 for a cumulative term of nearly 30 years.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
In the fifty years since the passage of ANCSA, much has changed. Regional and village corporations have grown, branching into their own lines of businesses with the ability to provide dividends and services directly to their own shareholders. Corporate knowledge has expanded with new generations of board members building on TAC’s initial success which benefits shareholders and descendants to this day. TAC supports and funds cultural reclamation efforts including culture camps, language revitalization, and museums. Additionally, TAC provides educational scholarships, vocational training, and opportunities through The Aleut Foundation investing in future generations of Unangax̂ leaders.
Untold efforts from past board members have borne fruit today and are the result of what some might consider to be happenstance. Five young people, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, represented the Unangax̂ people ensuring that the Aleut people received the lands and resources they deserved.
“It makes me feel proud,” Swetzof said, “that what we started became this big jewel, something that everybody could be proud of.”
“What we did was amazing, and it is going to live for a long time. I’m glad that I was a part of it.”