Off the southern coast of the Alaskan mainland, Kodiak Island is home to various species of bird, fish and other wildlife. It’s also home to Koniag Inc., one of 13 regional “Alaska Native Corporations” established in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act—a U.S. law that settled land and financial claims of Alaska’s indigenous peoples.
Unlike other corporations, Alaska Native Corporations are responsible for the social, economic, and cultural well-being of their shareholders. Koniag, for instance, protects over 145,000 acres of Kodiak Island, enabling its shareholders to live off the land like their ancestors have for thousands of years. The organization also supports native communities through scholarships, job trainings, and cultural programs.
So what do Alaska’s indigenous communities have to do with global affairs?
According to Koniag’s President Shauna Hegna, a lot. She talked to us about how her local community is participating in and benefiting from a globalized economy.
How did you come into your role as President of Koniag?
I am blessed to have had great mentors growing up. My dad wanted me to learn the value of a strong connection to our land and how to respect the bounty that comes from hunting and fishing. He also encouraged me to expand what I knew through education. Koniag Elders urged me to seek new opportunities to help our people. The woman who hired me at Koniag believed in supporting strong women. She brought me in and prepared me to serve as President.
I am fortunate to have so many people invested in helping me grow in this position and create opportunities for our shareholders. I’m still learning, but I wake up every day excited to help my people.
How have your personal background and connections empowered you to work at Koniag?
My ability to serve my people starts with my family. Growing up, my twin sister and I always pushed each another to try harder, be better, and excel at everything we did. My parents, husband, extended family, and community always encouraged me to take new paths and experience all the wonderful opportunities that came my way. I cannot express how wonderful it is being grounded in a culture that “shares the catch” with incredible support and generosity.
You were a Marshall Memorial Fellow. Given Koniag’s local focus, what motivated you to partake in an international program?
While Koniag is always looking to create local economic opportunity on Kodiak, in Alaska and across the country, it is imperative that we understand how the rest of the world’s political and business systems work. It is a global economy and the need to continually provide for our shareholders underscores the need to better understand the world around us and look for opportunities everywhere.
Several of the Alaska Marshall Memorial Fellowship alumni told me the program was a transformational experience and encouraged me to participate. I feel incredibly blessed to have been a part of the program. I learned so much about Europe, the E.U., and the five countries I visited. I found new friends and potential business partners and recognized that bringing those relationships back to a small community and a small population state was imperative.
How can native corporations bring those global ideas and relationships back in support of local communities?
New ideas from other parts of the world can spur innovation and help our local communities to be sustainable in the long-term.
For instance, online marketplaces and e-commerce are a way for people from Kodiak Island to share some of our culture’s beauty with the rest of the world. The Alutiiq people can market and sell traditional handicrafts like woodcarvings and handmade jewelry. Native corporations are critical partners in helping to bring these fresh ideas and new approaches to our communities.
What impact do you think globalization has on local issues?
The impact is immeasurable. Salmon is one example.
Wild Alaskan salmon is a healthy source of food in demand across the globe, and Kodiak Island is home to one of the best salmon fisheries in the world. Salmon is both a global economic resource and an important part of our heritage as our ancestors have harvested fish for centuries. Many of our shareholders still rely on salmon, since fresh food in Alaska’s rural communities can be hard to come by. In fact, three generations of my own family gather each year to catch and smoke salmon for the winter months. It is a sustainable and critical cultural and economic resource for our region.
But some features of globalization like the proliferation of genetically modified or farmed salmon can create pollution and put wild salmon, and part of our culture, at risk. By engaging in the global economy, Koniag isn’t just creating economic growth; it’s protecting our culture.
What is some advice you would give young women who may be following a similar path to yours?
Listen to those around you. You may not always agree, but we can learn something from every voice we listen to. Take every opportunity that is given to you.
Be confident in yourself and your ideas. It is so hard sometimes, and you’ll make mistakes, but learn from them. Never stop learning and growing and always say thank you when someone gives you a hand.