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Sealaska interns witness, participate in community-driven work on Prince of Wales Island

by Evan Roberts, Shareholder Development Intern

In the week leading up to Sealaska’s 2023 annual meeting of shareholders in Klawock, a group of seven interns traveled to Prince of Wales to learn about Sealaska’s community-driven work. 2023 celebrates the launch of Sealaska Abroad — Sealaska’s international internship program. The three students who will be working with Sealaska subsidiary New England Seafoods International (NESI) this summer were joined by Natural Resources, Shareholder Development, and Codefy interns to participate in a variety of cultural and educational experiences.  

When the interns arrived in Klawock on Wednesday, their first trip was to Jon Rowan’s carving shed to learn about his craft and the poles he has carved. In the shed they saw several of his projects, including one commissioned by the city of Klawock to honor first responders. Jon spoke about his experience with learning to carve and the work he is now doing to teach the next generation. He recently retired from a thirty-year career with Klawock Public Schools, where he taught local students throughout the school district, but he still has several students who spend their summers with him, working on the totems. He took the group to the Klawock Totem Parks to see many of the poles Jon has carved. There, he talked about the process of raising and maintaining poles, and how important it is that so many now stand together in Klawock.  

After the totem tour with Jon Rowan, the interns stopped by Sealaska’s Klawock Office to learn about the carving and bark program that supplies schools, cultural groups and master carvers with cultural woods for projects like totem poles, paddle workshops and cedar weaving. Sealaska’s Bob Girt also explained how climate change impacts the forests and the importance of the work that Sealaska does to protect our ecosystems from the oceans to the lands around us. 

“Before sending our three international interns to NESI through our newest internship opportunity, we wanted to drive home the significance of the work that Sealaska does to support communities using the profits that are made from our businesses,” said Tesla Cox, Senior Director of Shareholder Development. “This way, they can cross-educate, teaching while they learn — our overseas employees can learn more about our culture, homelands and communities, all of which their work helps support — from the interns, while the interns engage with them and learn about sustainability and operations. Each side will be enriched by the knowledge shared with them.” 

Thursday took the intern team to the Xántsii Náay Culture Camp in Kasaan for an amazing day of learning and celebrating hosted by leaders K’uyáang Ben Young and Ilskalas Marita Young, along with Elder and Xaad Kíl birth speaker Ilskyaalas Delores Churchill. The group was able to see totems that have stood for hundreds of years and learned about Kasaan’s history and the origins of totem carving. They visited the Kasaan Haida Longhouse, where the young culture camp participants led them in song before a lunch of salmon, fish spread and herring egg salad. After lunch, the community taught the Sealaska team some Haida dances and they heard stories and teachings in Xaad Kíl from Ilskyaalas, translated to English by K’uyáang. The community generously welcomed the interns and team in with cedar headband weaving, seaweed processing and a tour of their canoe museum, closing out a day of cultural immersion that had significant impact on the group.  

“Visiting and working on Prince of Wales this summer and last has been an amazing experience I will not forget. Being able to reconnect with my culture and family while working at Sealaska has been so meaningful to me in both the development of my career and connection to who I am. Being able to give back to these communities is fulfilling in so many ways. Seeing the work I’ve done directly change and improve salmon habitat is rewarding and being able to share that experience with other interns this summer was awesome! Seeing how involved Sealaska is in the development of these programs and relationships that are built from them is so encouraging and a reminder of the dedication and responsibility Sealaska has to its shareholders.”

— Frances Zoloth, Natural Resources Intern, Sealaska

The next day, the intern team started their morning with a visit to a stream restoration project where the Alaska Youth Stewards (AYS) were working on a salmon habitat rehabilitation project. The interns assisted with work on the site, then hiked down the watershed where they learned from field instructor and KISFP Coordinator Quinn Aboudara about what it means to work on salmon habitat restoration and the importance of engaging Native students in caring for their ancestral lands. Aboudara spoke passionately about the significance of the work that AYS is doing, addressing both what it means for the students who they work with and for the lands themselves.  

In his words, “After 10,000 years of intense research, we have determined that the best thing for Indigenous forests, Indigenous lands and Indigenous waters are Indigenous people. We are the best things for our land — you… you… are the best things for these lands — because nobody will ever care about them the way that you do, because this is your home.”  

The interns had the opportunity to experience this connection for themselves, learning from both the “boots on the ground” forestry crews and the forest itself. For many, this experience was their first on Sealaska lands, offering them the opportunity to truly form a relationship with the homelands of their ancestors and see the true impact of the work done by Aboudara, forestry partnerships like KISFP and the AYS program.

The interns finished their trip with a day spent at Sealaska’s annual meeting of shareholders, which offered the group a wonderful opportunity to gather with relatives and fellow shareholders, some for the first time. All seven of the interns on the trip helped with the event in different ways throughout the day, including sharing information at the workforce development table, sharing stories from the day on social media and bringing meals to elders. The meeting included the announcement of the outcome of the recent Sealaska board election, a community Q&A with current board members, and a performance by the Klawock Heinyaa Kwáan dancers. The meeting was a wonderful way to bring so much of the community together, and the Sealaska intern team was able to be part of the whole day and see “behind the scenes” of a large shareholder gathering.  

In the five days this group of Sealaska interns were on Prince of Wales, they gained a greater understanding of Sealaska’s multifaceted work to support communities and were able to form their own connections to culture, heritage and lands. They learned about partner efforts to continue to care for our traditional lands from Aboudara and the Alaskan Youth Stewards crew, saw practices of restoring and preserving culture through Jon Rowan’s totems and the Xántsii Náay Culture Camp, and were able to see Sealaska’s leadership and businesses in action as they assisted with the annual meeting of shareholders. Outside of formal programming, the interns visited the Craig Tribal Association, had a bonfire on the beach — complete with karaoke and ocean dipping — and wove cedar headbands on the deck of their AirBnB while watching eagles, otters and whales on the water. The trip helped each of them on their paths toward greater connection with the lands, cultures and communities represented by Sealaska.  

“Being from Prince of Wales, I was pretty familiar with the island and most of what it had to offer. However, being there with Sealaska allowed me to see it through new eyes and recognize how the corporation and the community are contributing to build more opportunities, which is something I’m very passionate about. It was evident throughout everything we did that Sealaska cares deeply about improving the quality of life for not just their shareholders, but everyone who lives on our Indigenous lands — after all, that’s exactly what empowers us to give back to our communities ourselves.”

— Taylor Natkong, Application Development Intern, Sealaska

Learn more!

Sealaska has a variety of programs in its Shareholder Development department ranging from youth programs to leadership development. 

Learn more about programs like the internships described above at the link below. 

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