In December 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act into law. The sweeping legislation was the largest land settlement of its kind, providing around 44 million acres of land and $962 million to the original inhabitants of the forty-ninth state.
Though she was just 10 when the law was enacted, Jennifer Fate Velaise recalls it as a formative moment. Her mother, a Koyukon Athabascan elder, had energetically lobbied for it. “I remember going to meetings with Mom and being an activist in grade school,” Velaise says. “There were people against it. I remember getting in fistfights in the playground.”
Unlike the reservation system in the lower 48 states, ANCSA granted Indigenous Alaskans corporate ownership of the areas restored to them. “It was a really unique and, for its time, a progressive, bipartisan piece of legislation,” Velaise says. “It gave Alaska Natives leverage to become involved in the state economy and politics, not just on Native lands.” It opened up new opportunities through the creation of 13 for-profit regional corporations. For 15 years, Velaise has served as an elected director for one of those corporations, Doyon Limited, which owns and oversees an area about the size of Costa Rica.
Being an elected Native leader, Velaise says, is “deeply gratifying work.” Shortly after returning from her family’s traditional summer subsistence fishing camp on the Yukon River, Velaise spoke about the deep connections between her career, her education, and her Athabascan heritage.
Your mom, Mary Jane Fate, was a key advocate of getting ANCSA passed. What was it like for her growing up in Alaska before it became a state?
My mom and grandparents lived a nomadic subsistence lifestyle. They lived off the land in a tent for much of the year, following game and fishing at their ancestral hunting and fishing camps. My sitsoo — meaning “grandma” in Koyukon Athabascan — said that even though they had no money, they were rich because they were so productive living off the land. I continue our Athabascan subsistence traditions on these same ancestral lands on the Yukon River every summer. Sitsoo had a huge influence on my view of wealth creation — that wealth is more than just a dollar amount. It encompasses skill building, productivity, and sharing. Learning and teaching skills, being productive for yourself and others.
This legislation has been described as a giant experiment in which Alaska Natives were all of a sudden given this responsibility to run their own corporations. How did that affect your education?
My generation was the first ANCSA generation. We were raised to embrace education and then bring everything that we learned through college, grad school, or jobs back to our Native communities. In both my college and grad school applications, I wrote about how I wanted to get a business education and experience and bring it back to our people. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.
Alaska Natives were thrown into the corporate capitalist system with literally zero experience or education in business. There was a group of people who had no education, no business knowledge, had lived subsistence lifestyles, and they were thrown into these corporate structures. And I think it was the partnership between us owning subsurface and surface land rights, and the fact that oil and gas companies wanted to develop, that made us participants in the process as opposed to antagonists in the process. The legislation wasn’t perfect, though. It’s been a process of change.
I would say the first 20 years of ANCSA, there were some close calls with bankruptcy. Mistakes were made in the business world. Today it’s 50 years later and I am just blown away by how innovative our leadership has been over the many years in responding and learning and becoming participants in this kind of capitalist economy. And it’s been to the overall economic benefit of the Alaska Native people, raising a large number of our people out of poverty and unemployment.
How did your time at Stanford GSB influence your career?
I went in knowing nothing about business, so for me it was a real game changer. The great thing about Stanford business school is you can create strong relationships with your professors and with other students. I had an incredible strategy professor. I took a forensic accounting course, and I would say those were my two most impactful courses.
I tell our Native youth: Take accounting because it tells you the story of every aspect of a business — how line items change, how money moves between time periods, what’s the tone of management. I would say Stanford had a huge impact on the trajectory of my life. I also met my husband there.
What are the goals of Doyon Limited, both in terms of its corporate responsibilities and cultural commitments?
Native corporations were among the first social impact companies in the U.S. We have a full-on corporate role, like any other for-profit company in America. But we also have a quasi-government role where we provide some of the Native governance functions in our communities. Our mission statement is to provide for the economic, social, and cultural well-being of our Native shareholders, and we’ve enrolled every single Native born in our region. Doyon is a double bottom line company.
There’s a big push for ESG across America, which is environmental, social, and governance; and DEI: diversity, equity, and inclusion. Alaska Native corporations have been focused on DEI from the very beginning. If you go to any Alaskan company, Native or non-Native, they already have DEI built into their system because that was informed by the cultural orientation of ANCSA. I think Alaska was ahead of its time.
What is your “why” in doing this work?
Sharing is part of our value system in Native communities. We were born and raised to give back to our community and we’re so fortunate to be historically close to our subsistence roots. We’ve had the opportunity to grow up on our ancestral lands and live subsistence practices that are thousands of years old. That’s deeply ingrained, not just in me, but so, so many Alaska Natives. Subsequently, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really begun to see ANCSA and the Native corporations as a tool. I see them as a way of holding onto our ancestral lands and a vehicle for creating more opportunity streams for jobs, skill-building, and cultural revitalization. And it’s also been a tool for Native political and economic leverage.
All I can say is: Being part of something this big, it’s a beautiful and humbling experience. Our tribe elects me to represent them and it’s deeply gratifying work. It’s been an honor to do that for our people.
Photos by Miriam Geer