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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Growing Up Native in Alaska  -  Carrie Irwin Brown
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Carrie Irwin Brown
Born: September 13, 1971, in Fairbanks, Alaska
Parents/Relatives: John Irwin of Nenana and Terrie Irwin of Barrow
Place of residence: Anchorage, Alaska
Native Heritage: Koyukon Athabascan and Inupiaq
Schooling: Management degree in International Business, Alaska Pacific University, 1994
Occupation: Program Manager, First Alaskans Foundation; member of the Toghetthele Board of Directors
Family: Married
Interviewed: September 15, 1998

I was born in Fairbanks at the Army Hospital on Fort Wainwright, which is where the Native babies were born at that time. It was before they had the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center there.

My family is originally from up in the Koyukuk region near Bettles. My great-grandmother is full-blooded Athabascan, and my great-grandfather was Inupiaq. It was a little different in that Bettles is one of the few places up there on the Koyukuk where there were both Eskimos and Indians there living in the same villages. And so my grandmother is half-Athabascan and half-Inupiaq, and my grandfather was Irish. He came out of California to Alaska when he was 16 years old, I think. My dad and a few of his brothers and sisters were born in Bettles, and then they moved to Nenana later. So I grew up in Nenana, as did some of his younger brothers and sisters, and that’s where I was raised. So although we’re from Nenana, we’re not Tanana Athabascan, we’re Koyukon Athabascan because of the relocation.

My mom is from Texas, so I am a quarter Alaska Native -- an eighth Athabascan, and an eighth Inupiaq and was raised Athabascan. So I don’t really know much about the Inupiaq culture. And I’m a Doyon shareholder; a shareholder of Toghetthele Corporation, which is the corporation for Nenana. I might have a couple of other cousins that are also shareholders, but for the most part, my dad and his brothers and sisters are not shareholders in the village corporation that I’m a shareholder of. And my sister and my other cousins were too young to be shareholders. So I’m kind of a lone wolf there in Toghetthele Corporation.

Our family was raised a pretty traditional lifestyle based on subsistence. We didn’t do a lot in Fairbanks. Although where a lot of people see Nenana as not really a village because it’s located on the road, we lived a very traditional lifestyle until I was in high school. We didn’t have TV and telephone and all of those kinds of modern amenities until later, probably junior high or high school. So that was a little different, too, even though we were right there on the road system. It was very traditional, and we were very involved with the potlatches and everything that went on on the village side.

My grandma speaks fluent Athabascan and Inupiaq. But she never spoke it with us. I guess she probably did with my dad and his older sister and my Uncle Mike. It was used around us. I know phrases and certain words, but never used as sentences or any type of fluency at all. I remember when we were in elementary school. They used to have some of the elders come in and teach us a limited amount of conversation, but that didn’t last very long. Other than that, it’s mostly just what we know from hearing things here and there and just from knowing the songs and things like that – but never any type of formal education for sure.

I’m on the board of Toghetthele. I was appointed three years ago. We’ve had the same board members on the board since probably it was created. And finally, there was a resignation, and I was nominated and then appointed. And that lasted for about a year, and then I was elected at the following meeting – the youngest person ever on the board, and probably the only one under 45 right now.

And there’s been sort of a -- this is statewide -- push to involve more young people and get them ready for when these other leaders are going to be moving on eventually. They can’t stay on there forever. Who’s going to take over when they leave? When I was put on the board I didn’t know anything about being on a board. I didn’t really know the details of the activities of what the corporation had tried in the past or what they were willing to try in terms of projects -- economic development projects.

What about those born after 1971?

Quite a few of my cousins don’t have stock. If they get any, it will be a gift from my grandmother or inheritance of some kind. I don’t think it’s made that big of a difference. With my sister, she doesn’t have (village corporation) stock, and she’s not considered a shareholder, but she still affiliates herself with Doyon and with Toghetthele and with Tanana Chiefs Conference. And I think that what the organizations give us more than anything – it’s not about money, it’s about an affiliation with other people in our region. When we go to AFN, we say, "We’re Doyon." Or, "We’re Nenana Native Council" or whatever we are. They’re still tribal members, and they’re still eligible for a lot of programs and things. I don’t think that the stock itself makes that big of a difference. I haven’t seen that it has in my family anyways. I only have one other cousin who’s even of the age where she would be eligible for it. The rest of them -- I don’t see that it’s hindered them in any way, to say the least. My sister can still get scholarships through Doyon. She can access the programs and services of the Native council. Most village corporations, if you can prove your parents or whoever are shareholders, you can still access the services.

Was ANCSA a good idea?

I have to say yes and no. It obviously wasn’t successful in the way that people envisioned it being successful. Natives didn’t know anything about running corporations -- multi-million-dollar corporations. That much was obvious. As far as the money and the land -- that hasn’t been successful. The amount of money: it seems like a lot. And to a person outside that sees that Alaska Natives have such and such million dollars and all this land, it sounds like we’re pretty rich people. But as individuals, we don’t really have anything. And most people have nothing but what they know of their land and what they can live on by subsistence. Most people didn’t get anything out of it. And as far as the land goes, most of us don’t even have the land that we selected -- 20 years later. So I don’t think that’s been successful.

But, you know, there’s other things that have come out of it. We now have Alaska Native leaders in government. We have Alaska Native leaders that have business skills and know about the corporate world. And that’s something that probably would have taken a lot more time to come if we hadn’t been sort of thrust into these corporations back in the ‘70s.

We did get something out of it. It wasn’t a complete loss. I don’t think it worked the way anyone told us it would work. And we certainly didn’t get rich off of it.

Is there a loss of culture with the corporations?

Not at all. I’m sure some people probably say that you have to do that, but I just came back from Kipnuk and Kwigillingok which are very, very traditional villages out in Southwest Alaska. And we went from having fresh goose soup – and they’re eating seal oil and everything else for lunch, and we go back to the office and they’re speaking Yup’ik to each other fluently. And that’s all they speak to each other. And then he gets on the phone and he’s speaking English to some guy in D.C. So I think that the people that are in these positions have an incredible ability to switch back and forth, really and to sort of straddle both.

I have a lot of faith in Native leaders today, but at the same time I think that people can get greedy. If anything, that would be the downfall of a lot of these corporations.

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