When Hans Chester was growing up, he'd see his Tlingit mother receive dividend checks from Sealaska Corp. in Juneau and wonder why he didn't get one. He was Tlingit too after all.
Chester and other younger descendants may be able to receive dividend checks if Sealaska shareholders agree to issue life estate stock to those born after Dec. 18, 1971 - when Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Each shareholder's life estate stock would dissolve when he or she died.
ANCSA granted 100 shares of stock to each qualified Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian then living. Those born after the act's passage are not entitled to the stock. They may own stock only if current shareholders will or give it to them.
"This would ensure the whole Native populace has the original rights and values as original enrollees did," Sealaska spokesman Todd Antioquia said.
Some shareholders in the Southeast Alaska regional Native corporation don't like the idea because it could dilute their share values and their control of who gets shares.
Sealaska started with 15,000 shareholders and has grown to 17,200 through gifts and wills, he said. The company is still trying to assess the possible number of new descendants who could be issued life estate stock.
If younger Natives became shareholders, they could understand how the company works and maybe run it some day, Chester said.
"It's like we're bound because of our age," he said.
He equated the barriers among Native shareholders and non-shareholders to the language barriers in the Tlingit culture.
Chester, 26, has been dubbed in the community as "the youngest, most fluent speaker of Tlingit," he said.
He began working toward a master of arts in teaching degree at the University of Alaska Southeast on Wednesday. He plans to teach elementary school students in Juneau and integrate Tlingit language in the classroom. There are fewer than 500 speakers of Tlingit in the world, he said.
"The younger generation should be part of the corporation," Chester said. "There is already a lot of barriers between generations. This is just another barrier."
But Sealaska shareholder Y. Rebecca Frank of Juneau likes the way the corporation's stock distribution was designed for original shareholders and does not see a need for change, she said. She questions what happened to Natives' traditional beliefs and values.
As executor, she should have control over how shares are willed or given to descendants, she said.
"It seems like people are creating the rules as they want," Frank said. "We, as Native people, can set an example of treating our children fairly."
Last December, the Sealaska Board of Directors passed a resolution to bring the issue before a vote of the shareholders. If passed, the ballot initiative would allow the company to issue 100 shares apiece of life estate stock and shareholder benefits to descendants at least 18 years old. Eligible shareholder descendants would have to be of direct Tlingit, Haida or Tsimshian lineage and be one-eighth or more of Alaska Native. They also could not already be shareholders of another Native corporation.
ANCSA amendments that took effect in 1991 kept voting shares in Native hands and allowed shareholders to decide if they want to issue shares to their descendants. Without the amendments, all of the restrictions on stock and land that kept ownership in Alaska Native hands would have ended in 1991.
In March, Sealaska launched an educational campaign, "Our Shareholders, Our Descendants, Our Sealaska," so shareholders can make an informed decision about the issue, Antioquia said. The Sealaska Board of Directors will take a position on the issue after the education campaign is over at a time to be determined.
Shareholders could vote on the ballot initiative by 2005, he said.
Shareholders expressed their opinions on the issue during focus group meetings in Juneau, Anchorage and Seattle in December 2003. About 75 percent supported the idea and 25 percent were opposed.
The issue has pros and cons. Those in favor say issuing stock to a younger generation provides descendants a link to land and heritage, makes all Natives equal, sustains the company's future and is morally right.
"There's a moral obligation for descendants to be part of Sealaska," Antioquia said. "Some shareholders feel Dec. 18, 1971, doesn't define a Native."
Those opposed say adding more stockholders will dilute the value of shares, decrease dividends to shareholders, and make Sealaska harder to manage. Issuing shares is not necessary, opponents assert, because descendants would receive shares anyway through gifts or inheritance.
But Antioquia says the shares received under ANCSA cannot always be equally passed onto descendants. For instance, a mother who received 100 shares under ANCSA and wanted to pass shares onto her five children could only give each child 20 shares, he said.
Sealaska is uncertain how much the stock would be diluted because it is still trying to assess the number of descendants who are one-eighth Native, he said. About 13,220 descendants are at least one-quarter Alaska Native. The company expects an initial dilution if younger descendants become shareholders, but anticipates the amount of outstanding shares to balance out over time as older Natives die, Antioquia said.
In April, Sealaska issued a dividend of $2 per share. The average shareholder owns 100 shares.
When asked about the stock dilution issue, Chester said: "It could be said either way. It would take away from people today, but as Tlingit people, part of the culture is to have and give what you have."
Other Native corporations have already decided to share the wealth. NANA, (Northwest Alaska Native Association), a regional corporation headquartered in Anchorage; Arctic Slope Regional Corp., headquartered in Barrow; and Doyon Limited in Fairbanks have voted to issue shares to shareholder descendants.
Doyon added 6,441 shareholders in 1992 when it issued stock to descendants born from Dec. 19, 1971 through Dec. 31, 1992, said Julie Biddle, director of administration at Doyon.
Now Doyon is undergoing an education campaign to issue stock again to those born on Jan. 1, 1993 and later. A cutoff date has not been set yet, she said.
"It's one of the issues where they think it's the right thing to do," Biddle said.
The earliest Doyon shareholders could vote on the initiative is at the company's annual meeting in March 2005, she said.
Tara Sidor can be reached at email@example.com.