Koniag held its annual service trip in Ouzinkie on July 25. Under overcast skies, members of the corporation’s board of directors and CEOs were hard at work cutting weeds and repainting crosses in the community’s cemetery.
Trip participants included Koniag Chairman and CEO Ron Unger, Koniag President Shauna Hegna, the entire board of directors, Koniag staff members, and CEOs of Koniag’s subsidiary companies. Some traveled all the way from Virginia.
One of the goals of the trip was “to show them where that money they are earning is used,” according to one of the Koniag Board Directors, Sven Haakanson.
Koniag is one of 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations created under the Alaska Natives Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Koniag is headquartered in Kodiak and owned by more than 3,800 Alaska Native Shareholders. Koniag subsidiaries include numerous companies across multiple sectors, including government services, natural resources and tourism.
“For me, it’s a privilege to just get out to the communities and do some hands-on work with the community, because then they get to know who we are as people,” Haakanson said.
Haakanson was born in Old Harbor. He previously served as the executive director of the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, and is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Washington.
“The most important thing is connecting with each other because then they see what we are doing for the island of Kodiak,” Hakkanson said, adding that Ouzinkie residents expressed appreciation for the improved appearance of their relatives’ graves.
Koniag began the tradition of taking annual service trips in 2016, and has since visited Larsen Bay, Old Harbor and Port Lions. This is the first year the service trip has been to Ouzinkie, and for many participants, it was their first visit to Spruce Island.
“We leave the project up to every village,” said Stacey Simmons, senior director for shareholder services at Koniag. Every Native village then chooses a project in consultation with city, tribal council and native corporation authorities.
“They’ll identify a need in the community and then I will work with whoever is the lead on the project,” Simmons said. “This year I worked with the tribe. They had a community meeting about this project and they identified the cemetery.”
In Larsen Bay and Old Harbor, the Koniag service trip completed similar projects, repairing the villages’ cemeteries. But in Old Harbor, they built a mobile smokehouse for the community’s Culture Camp.
Before work on Ouzinkie’s cemetary began, the Koniag visitors were treated to lunch in the new Ouzinkie Native Corporation building, dedicated in June. The 38 members of the Koniag delegation feasted on smoked salmon, hamburgers and hot dogs, while enjoying a view overlooking Ouzinkie’s ferry dock.
According to Koniag Regional and Legislative Affairs Executive Tom Panamaroff, the service trips were initiated when board members wanted to enhance their contribution to the communities they serve.
“It gives them an opportunity to see the people who ultimately at the end of the day they are working for,” Panamaroff said. “If they are performing profitably, we can use that to benefit our shareholders.”
“It takes a lot to coordinate this both for Koniag staff and for folks in the community,” Panamaroff said. Koniag staff began coordinating the service trip two months before it took place, speaking with community leaders and shipping materials to the remote village.
“A lot of thanks and appreciation to the people in the community who helped coordinate it,” Panamaroff said. “It’s people in the community who welcome us and worked hard to make the day a success.”
Ouzinkie is located on Spruce Island, approximately 12 miles north of the City of Kodiak, and has a population of approximately 160 residents, down from over 220 in 2000. Four small airplanes were required to transport the Koniag delegation from the Kodiak airport to Ouzinkie’s airstrip.
“Coastal communities are a dying breed, they really are,” said Ouzinkie Native Corporation Director Darren Muller, who lives in Anchorage with his wife and children, but still calls Ouzinkie home. “My heart is with every single village on the island.”
Panamaroff said that next year’s service trip might take place in Ahkiok, but the decision is not final.