arrow-rightBack to Stories
Externship Participant Explores, Advocates Through ICWA Role

Barbara Belk’s life – and career – took a different direction through language learning and connection with community

Seeking meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sealaska shareholder Barbara Belk shifted the path of her life in the past couple of years. A few big changes include learning Sm’algya̱x, returning to school to pursue a degree in social welfare and exploring a new career path with an Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) externship offered through a partnership between Sealaska and Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA).  

“I picked up language learning during the pandemic and through that, I decided to go back to school,” said Belk. “Everything has just sort of fallen into place. I have never been a part of community in that way, and it’s really inspired me, pushed me into a new direction.” 

Joining the Juneau Sm’algya̱x Learners group offered Belk a chance to connect more deeply with her culture and inspired her to seek an externship with Sealaska while working on an accelerated bachelor’s degree through the University of Washington.  

“The ICWA (externship) that I did was a new one offered this last year,” she said. “I was so excited to see something that really just lined up with what I’m studying and what I hope to do later on. Working with Tlingit & Haida and helping to advocate for families and strengthen our communities was a dream come true. It was a lifechanging experience to get to be a part of.” 

ICWA sets federal requirements that apply to state child custody proceedings for children from families who are members of federally recognized tribes. CCTHITA’s ICWA and child welfare program assists those involved in ICWA proceedings, helping to ensure that the Tribe’s interest in children is protected if a child is removed from their home by the state. Through her externship, Belk served as an advocate, resource and cheerleader for children and families navigating ICWA.  

“A lot of the time, these parents, these families and the kids, they’re all in an unfamiliar system and in a situation that’s confusing and difficult. It was so powerful to be able to know someone is in their corner, someone is there for them.” 

Belk intends to use this experience to better inform her work as she looks toward future goals: a master’s degree in social work and continuing her passion for serving Indigenous families and communities. 

“I’m so grateful for everything that I’ve learned,” she said. The most important piece of advice she’d offer? “Definitely, if you have the opportunity to, learn your language. Language learning (Sm’algya̱x) has truly changed my life and led me to where I am today and helped me really see where I want to go.” 

Sealaska now offers externships like the one Belk participated in as part of a collaboration with partner organizations offering opportunities not available within the One Sealaska network. Externships are internships offered externally – these diverse roles empower students to explore beyond Sealaska businesses while still retaining the support of Sealaska’s robust internship program and peer-to-peer cohort relationship.  

Sealaska’s internship – and now externship – program is designed to help prepare our shareholders and descendants for rewarding, well-paying jobs in a variety of marine science, engineering, business and cultural-preservation disciplines. Students in these positions act as full-time, paid employees during the program, which runs during the summer months annually. In addition to building professional skills and networks, interns and externs develop valuable peer relationships through thoughtfully planned activities and learning opportunities they share together. Sealaska is proud to help unlock the potential of our shareholders and descendants through educational and professional-development opportunities. 

2023 internships open October 3, 2022! For more information and to apply, visit

Discover More Topics
Related Stories