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The $25,000 dividend checks make the news, but don't always make it into shareholders' pockets.
Native corporation dividends that get publicity are ones with a lot of zeros: Shareholders of Kavilco Corp. in Kasaan found checks totaling $25,000 in their mail boxes in 1980. Ouzinkie Native Corp. on Kodiak Island paid out more than $20,000 annually to each shareholder for the last couple of years.
But most dividends from Alaska Native corporations range from nothing to a few hundred dollars a year.
``It's a piss in the bucket,'' said Ethan Petticrew of Atka. He is a shareholder of Juneau-based Sealaska Corp., which has given out an average of about $345 each year. ``I get my dividend check and whoop-dee-doo.''
Mary Ann Haugen, a retired Native language teacher in Unalakleet, recently has received $50 dividends each year from Bering Straits Native Corp. and spends them on gifts or other small items.
``OK, I'll take you out for burgers tonight'' is her response to receiving her dividend.
From 1973 to 1993, shareholders received about $190 a year on average from regional corporation dividends, in 1993 dollars, according to economist Steve Colt of the Institute of Social and Economic Research in Anchorage.
Shareholders' frustration with the size of their dividend checks has at times led to big clashes with corporation boards. In 1994, a group of Goldbelt Inc. shareholders tried to overthrow the board of the Juneau urban corporation.
To calm complaints that the corporation wasn't giving enough to its members, the board handed out $16,000 each to average shareholders. The distribution totaled $43 million, or about half of the corporation's assets.
``You can only do that twice and you're liquidated,'' said Joe Beedle, Goldbelt's CEO.
The distribution shrank the corporation and its ability to earn money, but bought managers time to prove to shareholders the corporation could make profitable investments.
Some of the biggest dividends -- of more than $10,000 annually -- have come from Southeast village corporations that opted to cut timber. Usually larger dividends are tied to natural resources; selling off major assets, such as land or hotels; or the sale of financial losses to companies seeking tax shelters.
Regional corporations that have handed out the largest checks to shareholders are Arctic Slope Regional Corp., Sealaska, Doyon Ltd., and NANA Regional Corp.
During the last 25 years, shareholders of Arctic Slope averaged about $600 a year, the largest amount among all of the regional corporations.
Among the regional corporations, Calista Corp. has produced the least for its shareholders -- a total of $50 in dividends for each shareholder over the past 25 years. Dividends also have been slim for shareholders in The Aleut Corp., Bering Straits Native Corp. and The 13th Regional Corp.
On the Arctic Slope, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak of Nuiqsut, said dividend checks are important because jobs have been hard to come by in the winter and groceries are far more expensive than in cities. Feeding a household of seven to 15 people with store-bought food may cost $200 for just one meal -- making those dividends count.
``It's been very meaningful in the community,'' Ahtuangaruak said. ``It gives them a spark in dark months.''
Many shareholders use their corporate checks simply to pay off bills. Others buy Christmas gifts or put the money away for their children's college. Some put their dividends toward new snowmachines, often the main source of winter transportation where there are few or no roads. And some blow their dividends all in one night.
Gary Moore, who works for Tanana Chiefs Conference based in Fairbanks, complained that dividends often get spent in cities, instead of the villages.
``Basically money comes in, and as soon as it comes in, people fly out,'' Moore said.
However, Delores Barr, a NANA board member who works at a grocery store in Deering, said a lot of the checks are spent at the Deering store.
``It helps the local economy that one day or one week,'' Barr said.