Alaska Native Values and Indigenous Data Sovereignty: A Personal Reflection

This is a fairly rough piece, more contemplative than complete. It’s written after reading Kukutai & Taylor’s “Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Towards an Agenda”, which I recommend (especially the Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear piece).

A much shorter introduction to Indigenous Data Sovereignty can be found as a University of Toronto research guide.

Voices within Indigenous Data Sovereignty see the wellbeing of the whole community and its relationship with specific lands as the major and perpetual goals of society. What paucity of values we accept in our “mainstream” governance compared to this!

A modern American metric for a nation’s success is almost solely captured as GDP, intended as a measure of economic health as proxy for wellbeing of the country and all who dwell within (what could be more neoliberal?). The GDP does not even measure our economy adequately (see: the growing wealth gap, the assumption that corporate wellbeing is equivalent to the wellbeing of workers and/or humans, the intentional failure of GDP to account for reproductive labor).

Bhutan caught brief international attention for the institution of “gross national happiness”, an aspirational measure hampered by the impossibility of its accurate measurement.

Indigenous Data Sovereignty speaks well for values-based metrics. We can draw from Torres Strait Indigenous metrics for the wellbeing of individuals in the setting of place-relationships and large family-community units.

One of my own most treasured Indigenous learnings is to see my family members who, by virtue of long place-knowledge, heritage, and hard-kept Indigenous rights, come the closest I’ve directly seen to a meaningful opt-out from our capitalist society. My relatives are not political progressives by any means, but their way of life straddles entrepreneurial, anti-government radical, and traditional-subsistence.

My aunts, uncle, and cousins harvest a meaningful quantity of the stuff they need to live from the land and waters that surround them. Generosity and sharing are deeply embedded in the culture, partly as Tlingit (he is richest who gives the most away) and partly as a continued reality of living in a very remote place with oft-disrupted supply lines and no grocery store. It is easier to get a fish from the water or a vegetable from the shore than in any other way (it would come, if the weather is good, after many days, on the seaplane, or on the ferry once a month). There is a reverence for good and fresh food; if you catch a 60-pound halibut, you give around shares so as not to waste it or freeze it.

In a city, all this would seem hippie-radical; in Pelican, Alaska, it is only practical. Independence and local resilience through interconnectedness are critical, necessary values that result in a more gifting-based and less capitalist-individualist economy.

I write all this with a strong hesitation: the relatives of which I write also accept significant government subsidies, including distribution of food: interminable COVID relief shipments of smoked turkey legs, a choice so specific I cannot imagine its inclusion as anything other than the result of lobbying. And these same relatives would rail against progressive “handouts” I’d fight for. We all contain multitudes, not the least those of us with mixed Indigenous and colonial heritages. My relatives are strongly capitalist-individualist, hardworking fisherfolk whose personal economies depend on all of skill, strength, persistence, and luck.

But to remove the political from the acts themselves (as it were, and as if it were possible): the food does get distributed; my aunt (a matriarch) is known to be generous, and feed the whole town, including from enormous pots and baking-dish remixes of those same government legs of turkey, right next to plates of peeled yanna.eit.

In a separate interesting twist, Alaska Native corporate governance creates another rich site for the use of data and metrics to inform a pursuit of a perpetually renewing, values-centric “forever” mission.

Brief context is necessary here. Alaska Native tribes were among the last to be recognized in the United States, and have a strong organizing history, in particular through the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), a coalition of Alaska Native tribal organizers who have been active and effective at the U.S. federal level since the early 1900s. In the 1970s (post-statehood, post-recognition of the tribes), vast oil reserves were confirmed in Alaska.

This resulted in a pique of national interest in “the native question”, and strong pressure to resolve native claims so the oil could be accessed and a pipeline built. ANB leveraged this spotlight to broker a treaty — still of course a controversial one with unresolved elements, but a landmark agreement that gave Alaska Native tribes specific rights and ownership, in exchange extinguishing all other claims. This was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

I recite these facts from memory; I grew up in these stories. When I travel with my father to foreign places, we often meet local indigenous communities in the course of hitchhiking and farm stays; he’s had me translate these stories live into Spanish around Mapuche and Kahwesquar dinner tables. My dad was about 20 when ANCSA passed. (I was about 20 when I was hanging out with the Mapuche.) I often forget to tell this story because it is so much a part of me.

ANCSA, instead of establishing reservations (not effective for tribes in the lower 48), set up regional and village corporations under tribal control, establishing a system whereby lineal descendants of tribal members became shareholders of these companies, receiving regular financial dividends. The companies were and are the owners of specific lands and have certain special privileges in bidding for contracts with the U.S. government. The companies can hire from inside or outside the tribes for everyday operations — though there is in-tribe preferential hiring, training, scholarships, internships, which amount to an effective jobs guarantee for tribal members like me.

My father, like many single young Alaska Native men, worked on the oil pipeline in the endless cold night of a Prudhoe Bay winter. That’s the money that paid for the land I grew up on in Snohomish, still a place very much bound up in my present and identity.

My father’s career, when he settled into one, was and is wholly through the Alaska Native corporations, specifically timber harvest and export to Asia, including clear cutting. But even clear cutting is different in an Alaska Native context, because the tribe remains in relationship with the land.

No place is disposable, and the mission of the Alaska Native companies makes this explicit: with the land and resources that are ours and that we can grow, we must provide for the emotional, cultural, recreational, physical, spiritual, financial, and material subsistence and well-being of the tribe, forever.

When my father manages a timber cut plan, it is a plan for the next 100 years: rotational planting, ecological restoration. A cedar tree takes 100 years to grow to harvest. And so the cycle is set: continuance, and a modern reliance on that same cedar tree that has always been a backbone provider for the Tlingit.

Sealaska, the Southeast Alaska regional corporation that unites the well-being of Tlingit, Haida, and Tshimshian tribes, uses a set of traditional core values:

  • Haa aaní, our land and the ocean and our relationship with it, including the responsibility to stewardship;
  • Haa latseení, our strength of body, mind, and spirit — our interconnected health and responsibility to care for others in our community;
  • Haa shuká, all the generations of the past, the present, and those to come — the foundation of intergenerational thinking; and
  • Wooch yáx, social and spiritual balance, including respect for others and respect for the dignity of all things.

In a corporate environment, it follows naturally that these values turn into goals, metrics, line items in budgets. And so the corporatization of our tribe may be a model source of long-running native-held and native-generated metrics. Our annual reports are a weirdly financial illustration of tribal strengths, and there is little danger there that we should be defined solely through stories of deficit. I get money every few months as a dividend of our collective wealth, and I will have larger dividends to take care of me when I become an elder.

This is an area so far missing from the discussions of Indigenous Data Sovereignty I’ve seen. It’s not surprising; this is a corporatized rather than academized area. But as we explore who has the right to know what — or hide from public quantification — this is an area I would like to more deeply explore and offer to the broader body of thought.

Could this odd mix of neoliberal and collectivist culture model a values-based bridge that can be adopted outside of Indigenous communities? Can we instill in our broader corporate cultures and communities this depth of pragmatic relationship with each other and specific lands? By giving our governing structures more responsibility for the collective well-being — universal healthcare, for example — can we bring into being a more holistic set of metrics that better represent our values as a society?

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Kelsey Breseman

Kelsey Breseman

An adventurer, woodland creature, and engineer. Currently working on data ownership models, environmental accountability, and intentional community.