My turn: Cultural values are the foundation of Sealaska

Posted: Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Juneau Empire recently published a troubling Aug. 11 letter to the editor by Gretchen Goldstein that misinterprets and distorts Alaska Native core cultural values. Goldstein attempts to discredit Sealaska Corp. and land legislation that will allow for the finalization of Sealaska's land entitlements under ANCSA, by misrepresenting Alaska Native values and our elders' wisdom.

The letter's author claims her participation in the Fish & Game Advisory Committee at Point Baker/Port Protection and the Southeast Regional Council, back in 1988, provided insight into our elders' view of Sealaska land management and subsistence priorities. I served as the state's regional coordinator for the Southeast Regional Council for five years, and I am an Alaska Native with a lifetime of interaction with our elders. I have witnessed only respect for Sealaska as a Native institution and as a land steward. It was our elders' tremendous sacrifice that led to the formation of Sealaska and the values they passed on that drive how the company conducts business.

Subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering is an inherent part of our DNA as Native Alaskans. The idea that Sealaska would turn a deaf ear to its elders is nonsensical. Since its inception, Sealaska has been guided by the wisdom of elders. Even today, through the Sealaska Heritage Institute, regular meetings with the Council of Traditional Scholars are conducted to understand our elders' perspective on issues relating to Native Alaskans and the corporation.

Sealaska has fought since inception for recognition of Native rights and protection and enhancement of subsistence rights, investing millions of dollars and countless hours of management time. Its very approach to land management, scientific monitoring and silviculture practices is to protect subsistence today and into the future.

Haa Aani is a traditional and core value we live by, and it guides us to both utilize and revere the land. We are managing the development of our lands with economic, social and cultural priorities. Our financial success leads to educational and cultural programs in addition to direct dividends to our people. The protection of our streams, eagles' nests and other habitat is self-imposed for the purpose of encouraging robust and healthy wildlife stocks and ample subsistence gathering areas. Our silviculture programs protect the health of the young forests to ensure future generations have the bounty we enjoy. And we have never denied access to our lands to tribal member shareholders.

Access continues to be an important issue for many. It is a message heard so consistently throughout Sealaska's outreach that the corporation asked that access provisions be included in the legislation to protect access by federal law for the purposes of hunting, subsistence and recreation. Federal law will protect access for Natives and non-Natives alike.

The legislation will help keep the promises of ANCSA, facilitate the return of a small fraction of Alaska Natives' original land base, and balance the needs and priorities of Sealaska and the general public. Native people continue to compromise, perhaps because our traditional and core values guide us to respect each other, and to strike balance in all things we do.

My grandfather, Judson Brown, used to say the relationship between Native people and all that is in the forest and sea is one of interdependence. He understood this when he fought for the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He understood this as he helped form, along with so many of our other esteemed elders, Sealaska. Their vision is being realized as we balance development of our lands and the care necessary to ensure its viability in the future.

Sealaska is not just a "for-profit" corporation. That may be the basis for which it was formed, but it is not what this Native institution has evolved into. Through the guidance and wisdom of our forefathers and elders, we have made a corporation that values the land in perpetuity, the education of our people, the preservation and enhancement of our culture, and contributes to stronger communities wherever we operate. I encourage Goldstein to contact Sealaska and Sealaska Heritage Institute to learn the truth about the corporation and how it engages and uses the teaching of elders to achieve harmony with business and our culture.

• Janice Hotch is a tribal member and shareholder of Sealaska Corp., currently serving as the corporation's Office of Diversity Solutions manager. She lives in Juneau.

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