Bringing Native Values to Work
Sophie Minich and Sheri Buretta were both little girls in Alaska when, 51 years ago, on December 18, 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). The act was the first of its kind in the United States’ long history of settlements with Native Americans. ANCSA created 12 Native regional economic development corporations in which the stockholders are the Native people who traditionally lived in these regions. The corporations were formed to provide economic, educational, social service, and cultural benefits to their shareholders.
Today, Minich and Buretta lead two of these Native corporations. Buretta is the chairman of the board for Chugach Alaska Corporation. Minich is the president and CEO of Cook Inlet Region Inc. (CIRI).
Growing up between Tatitlek and Anchorage, Sheri Buretta and her family drove from Anchorage, where she lived, to Valdez, where an uncle or cousin would pick them up with a boat to go to the village.
“We grew up with Alaska during the pipeline days as the settlement act came into its own,” Buretta said. “Our generation was really tough.”
While the intent of ANCSA was to help preserve the lifestyles and heritage of Alaska’s Native people, it also thrust people who had lived ancient subsistence lifestyles into the fast-paced tenets of corporate boardrooms and shareholder meetings. The cultural shift from living off the land to living off a cash economy was not always easy.
Buretta was eight months pregnant when she was elected to the Chugach Corporation’s board of directors in 1997. Six months later, they asked her to step into the position of chair.
“I was the only woman on the board at that time,” Buretta said. “As women—often as mothers—we have this role of taking care of others. Our Native corporations needed care, and, in some cases, some housecleaning needed to happen.”
Today, Chugach Alaska Corporation has a large portfolio of businesses, resources, and industries. The company employs 6,000 people in 150 locations. In the past decade, Chugach Alaska Corporation has returned $57.6 million in shareholder programs and benefits including dividends, cultural programs, and educational and professional development.
While Buretta brings a business and finance background to the boardroom, she enjoys bringing her fur-sewing and beading skills to Chugach’s annual Nuuciq Spirit Camp held on Hinchinbrook Island. The camp is held in the historical village of Nuchek and gives youth and elders the opportunity to share and learn Native arts, lifestyles, and languages.
“My travels in the Chugach keep me grounded and connected to the people and the communities we serve,” she said. “It’s my favorite thing to do.”
Buretta’s dad came to Alaska with the Air Force, where he met her mother. Her husband also came to Alaska with the Air Force in 1982.
“It’s interesting how things align themselves,” she said. Her earlier work assisting tribal councils with accounting and administrative infrastructure along with her experience in military life and government contracting helped prepare her for the position she holds today.
Buretta is helping to spearhead a “Village in a City” initiative in Anchorage. “Rural Alaska Natives come into Anchorage but may not have the skill set to be successful in an urban setting.” The idea, she said, is to have everything “in one place where people can get the training, housing, and resources they need; a place where we can gather as Native people and feel comfortable.” She hopes they will break ground on the facility next year. In thinking of the future, Buretta sees how embracing traditional Native ways could help build a better tomorrow.
“Our hundred-year plan for intergenerational prosperity envisions the basic principles of respect, responsibility, resiliency, and reciprocity,” she said. “As Alaskans, we live in such an amazing place. We live in connection with our land. We have a responsibility to do good during our time on this earth.”
The power of compassion, along with her people’s long perseverance in the face of adversity, are what inspire Sophie Minich in her work as president and CEO and for Cook Inlet Region, Inc. Resilience is why she thinks she survived a bout of meningitis as a child. After months in the hospital, she had to relearn everything she knew. While she was too young to remember much of this, she does remember her mother, who passed away when Sophie was just 12.
“She grew up in Fort Yukon and she was not proud to be an Alaska Native,” Minich says. “She was orphaned at a young age and sent to a boarding school at Eklutna. She was punished for her Native voice and dress and actions.”
In speaking of her mother’s lost voice, Minich said, “With the life I’ve lived and the work that I and others have done, I wonder whether she would be proud again.”
Minich’s background in finance and business has served the company and CIRI’s 9,100 Alaska Native shareholders well. CIRI recently achieved its highest revenue income in a decade. At the end of 2021, CIRI owned $1.1 billion in assets and generated $99.9 million of net income (compared to $50 million in 2020). From energy development to construction services to real estate, CIRI has a diverse portfolio of investments and industries.
Along with keeping that economic engine running, the social and cultural aspects of Minich’s work are equally important to her. CIRI offers summer internship programs, virtual mentoring programs, and an entire program of initiatives for the next generation to educate and engage future leaders and shareholders.
“In commemorating the 50-year anniversary of ANCSA, there is much to celebrate but so much left to do,” she says.
One of the first things she did when she went to work for CIRI in 1993 was to help change the culture of the workplace.
“I’m all about continuing to learn and in the first two weeks I got in trouble when I was caught in the breakroom talking to the then-president and CEO,” Minich says. She was brought into a co-worker’s office and told this was not her place.
“I was taken aback,” she said.
She decided the job was not a good match and turned in her resignation. Her boss took her aside and said the company was making changes and they wanted her to be a part of those changes. That experience stayed with her.
“I always want to be approachable. I have a complete open-door policy,” she says. “For one, because I do not have a door to my office. I pride myself on learning something about each of my employees so that I can talk to them about their children, their grandkids, their hobbies. The company’s culture is what makes CIRI a good place to work—we are like a big family.”
She says she is glad she stayed and grew with the company. Unlike her mother, whose voice and life ended too soon, Minich wants the voices of her own adult children and all of CIRI’s shareholders to reverberate with success and with pride in their heritage.
“I enjoy what I do every single day,” she said. “It’s a way to try to give back to the Alaska Native people and to learn about, embrace, and perpetuate the culture.”