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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Lecture Series
Lecture Series, Number Four  -  Page 15
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Tom Richards: Thank you. This is a question from a fellow who’s brave enough to sign his name, John Doyle from Nome originally. He must have been reading about a major national energy company and their auditors lately. There have been comments about the unique structures of Native corporations. Please comment on aspects that might help teach better corporate citizenship to other corporations. Bill Van Ness.

William Van Ness: Thank you, Tom. John, there actually are not a lot of terribly unique structures in the Native corporations beyond the 7(i), the sharing principals. These are basically for-profit corporations created under the Alaska State Statute just like other Alaska corporations. What is unique about them is the manner in which they are run. Unlike other corporations, which are held to a for-profit standard and what a reasonably, prudent person would do in commercial circumstances. They have an obligation to profit the shareholders. The profit reins supreme. But Alaska Native corporations, for the most part, don’t run by that standard. They run by the standard that we are the corporation of our people and we’re going to benefit our people. They could be profitable, but sometimes choose not to be profitable, because they’re going to create jobs for their shareholders. That’s what they do. From an economist’s point of view, that’s irrational. From a lawyer’s point of view it might even be illegal. But that’s the way they run those corporations.

They have scholarship funds. They help kids get to school. They do all sorts of other things that are totally beyond the objectives of the value system of the statutes under which they were created and the purposes for which corporations normally operate. Certainly Enron and others could learn a hell of a lot about how these corporations operate. They’re different, because they exist for a unique group of people who share common cultures and traditions. Whereas with a publicly held corporation, investors from all over are buying shares for one reason -- they want profits, they want dividends, they want the value of the stock to go up. Therefore, they can’t replicate the unique aspects of the Native corporate experience in my judgment. Good question.

Tom Richards: Thank you, Bill. A question for Willie. What is the role of Native corporations in helping us retain who we are as Natives? How should they do that?

Willie Hensley: In our first 15 years up in our region, we put a lot of energy into politics and economics. Back about 20 years ago we went through a little bit of a catharsis when we discovered that from almost every measure, our people, from the human standpoint, were maybe worse off than when we started -- in terms of alcohol, drugs, divorces, family violence, graduations, that sort of thing. It was corporate leadership that led the effort to rethink who we were and where we were going. That resulted in what we called back then the Native Language Program.

The whole idea was that we discovered our primary values as Inupiat people were still as essential as they had been in our historical past, and maybe, in fact, were even more important for the future. The ideas of sharing, of humor, of hard work, of honoring elders and loving children, all those things that made us unique were now still, in fact, even more essential than they were in the past. We began to see that the institutions we had been given by the system to run were confusing us. Rather than trying to eject them, however, we tried to turn the whole direction around to change those institutions into positive influences for the maintenance of our identity and spirit. It was often the school district that had a lot of latitude in terms of teaching knowledge, values, and language. There was room enough there to do it. Maniilaq, NANA Corporation, all of those gave us a new perspective and allowed us to put things in their proper place and still move forward.

I don’t know where we are now because I’ve been out for four or five years, but it gave us some new energy and vigor and helped us understand more about what our individual goals and purpose were. In our region we, the corporation, spearheaded the formation of spirit camp. We had already spent a lot of time and energy working with elders and got a lot of great information from them. In fact, we couldn’t have made the moves that we did without their support in those days--that is the merger of 10 villages in NANA to create a bigger economic pie. It turned control of the corporation over to the villages and gave them all of the power through the way it was structured. We probably couldn’t have moved ahead with the formation of the Red Dog Mine had we not had their support.

The reality is that a corporation is what I call a zero. It’s an idea. It’s an empty thing. What you have to do is put your particular people’s hopes and aspirations and spirit and ways into it and adapt it to work.

Tom Richards: Thank you, Willie. Mr. Van Ness has to leave us, and we’re running a bit late. It’s my fault. I should have been hitting the gavel here, but with such distinguished company, I didn’t want to call time out.

I’ve got one more question that I’ll answer and then we’ll go to the reception. Then, if you’re not able to get your question answered at the reception, we’ll make sure through the modern miracle of e-mail and fax machines and so forth that the eight other questions get answered.

This final question for me is, “When do you plan to publish your book?” Here it is. I’ve been thumbing -- I need to update this. It’s been a work in progress for a number of years now, but I need to catch up on the last eight or 10 years. It’s our fault, those of us who write within the Native community, it’s our fault that we don’t have our own materials, our own history, our own curriculum. Now that there’s interest on the part of not only the Municipality of Anchorage, but other school districts, real school districts in the State of Alaska in developing a curriculum that addresses not only Native history, but the totality of Alaska history. It’s our own fault we’re not doing it. I’m sorry, but I’ll get to it.

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