Self Development of People (SDOP) in Alaska
by Cynthia E. White
With Self-Development of People it’s about the people. And that is what I love about my calling to this ministry. I know when my desk is piled with paper behind each piece of paper lives are being changed. One of the most rewarding aspects of the job is visiting community partners. It is really awesome when that partner was funded in 1971 and the persons being visited are the sons and daughters of those originally involved in the project. I had the opportunity to do just that a few weeks ago. Visiting this group of people was a remarkable experience, not to mention going to Alaska made one less thing in my bucket list of things to do in this lifetime.
In 1971 The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) of Barrow, Alaska was awarded a grant from SDOP totaling $95,000. The grant was to assist the native people of Alaska in a land rights case. This was among the very first grants made by the newly constituted National Committee on the Self-Development of People of the United Presbyterian Church. In 1974 Joseph Upicksoun , president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and a delegation of corporation and borough officials, appeared before the 186th United Presbyterian General Assembly to present a gift of $95,000 to the National Self-Development of People Committee. At that time Mr. Upicksoun pointed out that the gift from the Inupiat people of the Arctic Slope was a symbol of the fact that self-development and self-determination had been achieved by the Eskimo people of Alaska. “The long, expensive struggle to win the right and dignity of making our own decisions, and gaining title to our aboriginal lands, was helped immeasurably by a gift from the Fund for the Self-Development of People. As a people we want to prove to all observers that the gift was well given, that the trust was well taken. The yield of our land, under our own management, has made it possible for us to place this money back into circulation—hopefully to accomplish for others what it has for us,” Mr. Upicksoun stated.
Although ASRC had humble beginnings, and there was a time the company’s leaders worked for no pay, it is now the largest Alaskan-owned company. It has been the largest locally-owned and operated business in Alaska for the past 17 years. Each year, a significant amount of ARSC’s earnings – approximately 40 percent – are distributed directly to its shareholders through dividends and other benefits. The remainder is reinvested in the company to ensure sustainable economic growth for current and future generations of Iñupiat. ASRC is owned by 11,000 Iñupiat Eskimo shareholders who live primarily in eight villages on Alaska’s North Slope, above the Arctic Circle.
The town of Barrow is the headquarters of ASRC. Barrow is unique in that it is the northernmost community in the United States, and is the largest village on the arctic slope with around 4500 residents. Traditionally, the community is known as Utqiaġvik, which means "place to hunt snowy owls." This is one of the most isolated and challenging environments in the United States
Although Barrow is a modern community, subsistence hunting, fishing and whaling are still very important to the local economy. Many residents continue to hunt and fish for their food.
Tasting whale blubber for the first time was a unique experience. Ida was kind enough to have us over for dinner during our stay, she prepared the blubber three different ways, each quite different. The blubber and whale meat were for us culinary delights.
Eugene Brower a Director representing Barrow on the ASRC board remembers being 7 years old, living on the river, when his father came and told them they were moving to Barrow to become a part of this new thing – the Arctic Regional Corporation. Mr. Brower, “back then we were all so young, times have changed so much; then we lived the substance life style. Everything was done by bartering. We now live in a cash economy”. Eugene eventually worked for ASRC, retiring a few years ago as the Fire Chief of Barrow.
Eugene's wife, Charlotte is the current and first female mayor of Barrow.
Edith Nageak who also worked for ASRC says “Self-Development of People really helped in our people’s self-determination. Keep doing what you’re doing, helping in people’s self-development and determination.” Edith’s brother James Nageak served for a short time on the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People. James, “I was honored to be a part of this Committee that believed in our people in the early years and was still doing good work three decades later”.
In addition to traveling to Barrow I was privileged to be a part of the Yukon Presbytery meeting in Anchorage. At the same time I trained the newly constituted Yukon Presbytery Self-Development of People Committee.
The trip was made even more gratifying as throughout the time in Alaska I was traveling with The Moderator, The Reverend Neal Presa, his wife Grace and their two wonderful sons Daniel and Andrews.
Self-Development of People is truly a ministry of “People Investing in People”.
(Are you a member of a group of low-income persons working on issues of importance to you and your community, will working on these issues result in long-term positive change? Are you in need of financial assistance? Contact SDOP at (502)-569-5782, (www.pcusa.org/sdop) we would welcome talking with you and possibly hosting a community workshop in your area).
Cynthia E. White serves as Coordinator for Self Development of People. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org