On October 24, 2014, the Alaska Federation of Natives recognized Frank O. Williams Jr. for his work in uplifting and unifying Alaska Native people with the organization’s Dr. Walter Soboleff “Warriors of Light” award.
Known to his friends as “Frank O,” he formally introduces himself as “Tlingit, Raven, D'akdeintaan, Mt. Fairweather House, Chookaneidi Yadí.” Born at Dundas Bay, now part of the Glacier Bay National Park, and raised in Hoonah, Frank O spent much of his adult life in Sitka, where he worked as a finance officer at the Mt. Edgecumbe Service Unit, administered by the Indian Health Service.
Among his more significant contributions, Frank O was a founder, in 1968, of the Southeast Alaska Native Board of Health, which seven years later evolved into the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. Employed in those days at Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital, Frank O served as a finance officer charged with maintaining the books and day-to-day accounts. He also assumed the role of patient advocate.
To the initial discomfort of his boss about potential conflicts of interest, Frank O chaired both the Statewide Native Board of Health and the Southeast Native Board of Health, and served as Grand Camp treasurer of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. He was also soon appointed to the National Indian Health Board.
The late Art Willman who led the service unit, remembered Frank O handling his diverse responsibilities with such skill that he never ran afoul of Indian Health Service rules. “Frank O, he understood there was a potential piece of trouble, but he felt the game was worth the risk of tripping up,” Willman said.
Looking back on this time, Frank O takes considerable pride in his leadership of regional, state and national health organizations that exceeded their assigned roles as advisory groups and instead became strong advocates of Native American self-determination in the field of health care. Native-run health consortiums throughout Alaska are now among the state’s largest employers, annually contributing well over $1 billion to the economy.
Soon after Alaska Native corporations organized, his uncles recruited him to serve his home village as a director of Huna Totem Corporation. Through six terms as chairman during the late 1970s and early 1980s, he steered the village corporation through a turbulent time of near bankruptcy to profitability.
“As the corporation began to grow,” he remembers, Huna Totem was able to begin other programs. “Now we can talk about having not only Huna Totem Corporation, but also Huna Totem Shareholder Trust, and Huna Heritage Foundation. You cannot put a dollar value on all of this. Our Education Assistance program, which is an investment in our youth, would be impossible to measure in dollars and cents.”
Huna Totem, which Frank O led and served for so many years, now owns the largest independent cruise ship destination in North America, Icy Strait Point, which provides well over 100 jobs and contributes significant tax and spin-off economic benefits that have infused the ancient village of Hoonah with renewed vitality.
Frank O also served two terms as Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp president (1977 and 1978) and continues his long service on the Grand Camp Executive Committee. Honored by the 2012 ANB/ANS Grand Camp convention, he was named Grand Camp president emeritus and Grand Camp parliamentarian emeritus.
Old age may have restrained his mobility and lowered the volume of his voice, but Frank O continues to speak clearly and shine the light of his great experience on the issues of the day that concern him. True to the honor he received from the Alaska Federation of Natives, Frank O continues his work of uplifting and unifying the indigenous people of Alaska.
*Sealaska would like to acknowledge Juneau author Peter Metcalfe for documenting and writing this article about Frank O. Williams. Metcalfe, along with Kathy Ruddy, have published a book, “A Dangerous Idea: The Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Struggle for Indigenous Rights.” Both will participate in the December 5, 2014 gallery walk at Nugget Mall.