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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Margie Brown

Margie Brown, of Yup'ik heritage, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of CIRI. She was elected to the CIRI Board of Directors in June 2002. She served on the board from 1984 to 1987, and as senior vice president of CIRI and vice president for the oil and gas, and the land and resources departments. Brown was also president of the CIRI Land Exchange, Inc. She is a former director of The CIRI Foundation.

Sharon McConnell: Tell us briefly what you were doing the first few years before and after the Claims Act was passed.

Margie Brown: I was in college just before the Claims Act was passed. I didn't graduate from college until 1972, and I was going to school at the University of Oregon, living in Anchorage at the time, but going out to the University of Oregon-Eugene to finish my schooling. So while the Claims Act was sort of being negotiated, I was in school. I knew about the Claims Act, because my Uncle, Tim Twitchell, had made it a point to keep our family informed. I was of the age that I didn't participate in the actual negotiation; so I watched from afar.

Margie Brown
Sharon McConnell: When you were watching from afar, when you came home for visits, what was the atmosphere like? Were Native people abuzz about what was going on with the Claims Act?

Margie Brown: I think it was understood to be a very serious issue, and I think Native people were watching. Even people who weren't active negotiators or delegates were aware it was happening. I think people understood it was important, they just didn't know what the outcome would be. In fact, when the Claims Act was passed here in Anchorage, there were all sorts of headlines about how rich Alaska Natives were going to be, because all this money was going to be divided up, and women were going to be married for their money, and all sorts of things. People didn't really understand the structure of how it was going to work, but there was a great deal of anticipation that something would ultimately happen.

Sharon McConnell: What do you think ANCSA promised 30 years ago, and do you think that promise has been fulfilled?

Margie Brown: Since Alaska was sold to the United States -- not that the Russians really had a right to sell it -- there have been Alaska Natives who have pursued the idea that there needed to be a lands claim settlement, that Alaska Natives had an aboriginal claim to much of Alaska. All through those early days, even through the Statehood Act days, Alaska Natives needed some kind of resolution, and I think that was fundamentally the promise of ANCSA -- that there would finally be a Native Claims Settlement Act that dealt with Alaska Natives' legitimate claim to so much of the state. I think that part of the Claims Act has largely been fulfilled. Obviously, there are those who said there could have been more, but the leaders at the time made their best judgment about whether this was in the best interest of Alaska Natives based on the opportunities at the time. I'm satisfied because that part of the promise worked. There have been parts of ANCSA that haven't worked so well, but overall I think it's been a net benefit to Alaska Natives.

Sharon McConnell: What about those developments that no one really foresaw, the consequences of the Claims Act?

Margie Brown: We see it right now, for instance, with the subsistence debate. One of the key things Alaska Native people were pursuing was the right to hunt, fish, trap, and subsist; to use the resources of the land. Alaska Natives' ties to the land, unlike in the Lower 48, have never really been broken, and that is a key issue for Alaska Natives.

During the negotiations of ANCSA, there was a provision that dealt with subsistence, but at the very last moment that provision was deleted, largely on a promise from state and federal representatives that subsistence rights would be protected. It took nine years and ANILCA to get the actual Title 8 subsistence language, and that's still been fraught with a lot of debate. I think the ongoing, unsettled nature of subsistence has caused people to take pause; to see and ask themselves whether that part of ANCSA was a shortcoming.

I also think there were some economic expectations that may have not been met yet. For instance, regarding the Section 7(i) revenue sharing -- the provision in ANCSA to even the playing field between the "haves" and the "have nots" as far as sub-surface resources go. You'll have to remember that the Claims Act was passed shortly after Prudhoe Bay was discovered. So we had expectations, and they were probably unrealistic and we were probably naïve, but we had expectations that there might be other great finds like Prudhoe Bay on Native lands. This was one of the things that has yet to occur. There has been some revenue sharing and there will be some in the future. But to date, there haven't been any significant sub-surface findings, and so that part of the promise is yet to be fulfilled.

Sharon McConnell: How has ANCSA changed Alaskans?

Margie Brown: There have been great changes for Alaska Natives, for CIRI shareholders in particular, and for Alaskans. I think there's been tremendous change. For one, Alaska Natives had to learn a whole new language, the corporate language. They had to understand land ownerships and deeds, and land selections and corporate audits, and annual meetings, and stockholder ownership, the responsibilities of that, the corporate structure, and all that was laid down on top of a culture that wasn't used to it. Alaska Natives had to embrace a whole different kind of language.

CIRI shareholders have been changed, I think dramatically, because there is a CIRI today. Many, many CIRI shareholders obviously come from other parts of the state. They have moved to Anchorage for economic or other reasons, and so they may be far removed from their traditional homelands. There was not really a way for these people to share in the glory of being an Alaska Native until there was an organization such as CIRI. In this kind of organization, you can have people from all over the state under one umbrella organization, taking pride in the fact that they're a member of that organization -- not necessarily that they're Yupik or they're Tanaina, but the fact that they're a CIRI shareholder. Perhaps more than any other regional corporation, CIRI has really given people pride in a cultural identity of the region itself. That's been very helpful.

Sharon McConnell: What about yourself? How has ANCSA changed you?

Margie Brown: I can't imagine what I would be like today were it not for ANCSA. I feel blessed. I was at the right place at the right time to have a fabulous career and to be involved in a process that I don't think will be ever repeated in the state of Alaska. Participating in those early days of land selections, and essentially dividing up the state, is unmatchable. We were young people then, and I think if those of us making land selections for the corporations had known how momentous an act it was, we probably would have been scared. But we were so young and naïve that it just didn't dawn on us that it was something that should frighten us. It truly was a time to be in the business, when you could actually go in and make a significant difference and take such significant actions. It's not just CIRI, it's all the corporations. They had a tremendous burden, but they were really exciting times. I come from a small village and humble beginnings and I feel blessed for having the opportunity to be involved with the people that I have been—the Native leaders, and the business leaders.

Sharon McConnell: What do you think the next 30 years will hold for ANCSA?

Margie Brown: I think ANCSA will be recognized as what it is, which is a tool. It's one tool in a tool belt full of tools. It is not perfect. It's not the total answer for what Alaska Natives need. Perhaps we were a bit naïve in the early days by thinking it could be, but it's not. It has provided a powerful tool for Alaska Natives that I hope will continue into the future. The ANCSA structure and the entities that have spun out after ANCSA have given Alaska Natives a powerful economic and political voice to speak and be heard. It took many years before there was a real acceptance in the Alaska community—many, many years before you saw a story in the local Anchorage paper about the positive benefits of ANCSA and what Alaska Natives and Alaska Native corporations were doing. That was slow in coming, but I don't think anybody doubts there are strong economic and political entities that can now speak for Alaska Natives and they're heard in a way I don't believe they ever would have been without ANCSA. I think there will always be these sort of corporate structures in our future, but I think there will be all sorts of other options and other structures.

The regional non-profits are becoming very significant entities in Alaska Natives' lives, producing tremendous benefits and providing services. I think that will only get stronger. I see a whole series of organizations designed to address each area's specific needs.

Years ago, at CIRI, we were visited by folks from the Navajo nation, and they were visiting us to find out how the corporate structure worked. The Navajo nation is a great nation with tribal sovereignty and a constitution and all those things that are non-corporate. They were here looking to form a corporation to do their oil and gas development work because they felt it was missing; they felt they needed a corporate structure to be able to participate in a corporate world. I have to think that is instructive, that you can have all of the other things that come with tribal organizations or Alaska Native organizations and still have a need for the ANCSA corporations.

Sharon McConnell: What is your strongest memory in regard to ANCSA?

Margie Brown: I attended the first Cook Inlet shareholder meeting, and this was shortly after the corporation was formed, which I think was about 1973 or so, and this was going to be a new event for me. As it turned out, it was a new event for everybody. I don't think people really knew what to expect from the first annual meeting. We were lined up from the Fourth Avenue Theater all the way down three blocks, and I thought at that time, "You know this is really going to be something that I'm involved with."

I didn't know a soul, and so I didn't have anybody to chat with; but I listened to people going up and down the line, and those who were older than I was, and particularly those who came from the Kenai Peninsula who had grown up together, were walking up and down the line congratulating each other for being in the line, kidding each other, saying, "Oh, what are you doing here? I didn't know you're Native." I could see right then that it gave people permission to recognize their Native heritage in a way they were not allowed to in the past. I had a sense right then that this was really going to be an empowering tool that people, particularly in Cook Inlet, were going to take to and make work for them. That was my first brush with the corporate world.

Sharon McConnell: Did that make people want to become even more involved with the Alaska Native people?

Margie Brown: It did. You know, I feel that today. One of the reasons I really love the AFN Convention is just the feeling, not necessarily what the topics are, although they're important too, but the feeling of Alaska Native people taking great pleasure in being with each other. There is just a feeling of pleasure in being associated with each other, and you know that's what I take away from every AFN Convention. I think that we saw the beginnings of that in the line at the Fourth Avenue Theater going into the first CIRI annual meeting.

Sharon McConnell: That's a wonderful story. Do you have any final comments, Margie, that you would like to share?

Margie Brown: It's kind of in vogue to question the wisdom of ANCSA right now, and I would just like to say it's just as much a generalization to say ANCSA was all right, as it is to say it was all wrong. It was a social experiment. It continues to be one. There are good and bad things coming out of it. It's too easy to simplify and generalize it away. It's a complex piece of legislation. I think those people who participated and nurtured these ANCSA corporations along should be really proud and should not feel that they have to second guess themselves on whether it was the right thing to do. It will show itself in time to be, as I said, part of the solution -- not the entire answer, but part of the solution. I think the people who were delegates and voted for it that day should continue to think about it that way. That's how I think about it.

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