B.A. Political Science ’95
President of Ahtna, Incorporated
Hometown: Glennallen, Alaska
Fun Fact: Has a passion for studying Athabascan history
“I knew when I left Glennallen after graduation that I wanted to come back and serve my people one day,” says Michelle Anderson, president of Ahtna, Incorporated. “I’m sure that many people who have grown up in rural Alaska say this, because you know, you just feel like you want to make life better for people.”
Ahtna represents eight Athabascan villages in the Copper River basin—a remote area with a high cost of living. Taking the reins as president nine months ago, Michelle has her sights set on local development that serves the region, collaborating with village councils and local regional nonprofits to make it happen.
“My dream is that we have everyone working together and doing more for those we serve,” she says. “We’ve been trained to work in stove pipes, or we’ve carved artificial boundaries around those we serve and what we can do. We’ve learned to say that our respective organizations can only do certain things. We even have different names for how we address those we serve—the regional corporation and village corporations call them shareholders, the tribes call them tribal members, nonprofits call them beneficiaries. Instead of trying to do everything alone and being territorial, we need to remember we work for the same people. We should be pushing collaboration, pushing information sharing and pushing better communication. Working alone or separately is only holding us back.”
The goings-on in her regional corporation are something Michelle has witnessed since high school. She was elected to the board of directors right after graduation and that was a large part of the reason she decided to attend UAA for her undergraduate degree. That, coupled with earning the George Sheets Memorial Scholarship that would cover education costs at either UAA or two other college choices Outside. It wasn’t a hard decision.
And neither was majoring in political science.
“I have always had an interest in politics,” says the former UAA student senator. “Especially Native politics. I grew up around it—both my grandfather and my mother were involved in tribal and regional politics. My grandfather was a founding member of our first regional association and helped establish the Alaska Native Brotherhood in our region. I am fascinated hearing others tell me about my grandfather’s contributions and activism and how he worked with others to protect Native rights. I attended Ahtna annual meetings as a teenager. I remember listening to our leaders speak. We had so many powerful speakers and leaders who worked for our people because they felt ‘it’ in their hearts. I knew I had that same feeling when I graduated from high school. I always wanted to come back once I got my college education.”
She knew she wanted to go on to get a master’s degree, too, but didn’t quite know in what right away. So after earning her bachelor’s in 1995 she accepted a job offer from the governor’s office to head up a state commission on community service. That was the start to a fulfilling career in local policy, service and development that took her from the governor’s office to acting as rural outreach director on two campaigns for Tony Knowles and Fran Ulmer and then with the Denali Commission doing community planning and regional project coordination. When she did start looking into master’s programs and found the Rural Development program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, it was the perfect match.
“Juneau was my Disneyland,” Michelle says, quoting her best friend who once teased her about finding the playland that matched her love of politics and understanding systems. “As a student senator, I was amazed with how ordinary people could actually make a difference in state legislative process. All it takes is a passion to want to do something. When I got serious about pursuing a master’s degree, UAF’s Rural Development program fit perfectly with the work I was doing at the time at the Denali Commission. The program allowed me to mix the topics I loved: Alaska Native political history, public policy and rural development.”
Graduating with her master’s degree in 2005 marked Michelle’s homecoming to Ahtna. She was recruited by the then-president of the Ahtna Development Corporation (ADC) to be their vice president of operations and help with transitioning ADC from government contracting to regional development. “I was able to put my education to use for my own people in my own region,” she says.
Two years later, still in her role as VP of operations, Michelle stepped into a leadership role with the Ahtna Enterprises Corporation (AEC) to help oversee two federal service contracts and a few construction projects in the Lower 48.
“I appreciated learning more about government contracting and understanding better how construction works but I wanted to focus on creating opportunities back home for our shareholders,” Michelle said in a 2008 Ahtna newsletter. So after two years in her dual roles with ADC and AEC, she transitioned back to focusing solely on regional economic development.
When she reflects back on her time at UAA all those years ago, Michelle remembers one professor in particular who became an invaluable mentor and friend.
“I will always give credit to Dr. Carl Shepro—Carl pushed me hard to get through my undergraduate program,” says Michelle, who got married and had her first son while she was still working toward her degree. “He did not give up on me and didn’t tolerate any excuses for not continuing and finishing my degree. He believed in me and knew what my capabilities were. I genuinely felt that he wanted me to succeed. Life events like getting married and having children were no reason to slow down from Carl’s perspective. He was determined that I would finish. He challenged me, mentored me and set expectations for me. Because I could see and hear that he was personally invested in me finishing my degree, it made me want to try harder.”
And in considering UAA’s role in the greater Alaska community these days, Michelle says, “One important thing that UAA is doing now is focusing on the importance and the contribution that Alaska Native organizations bring to this state. I love that leaders like Byron Mallott, Marlene Johnson, Oliver Leavitt and Willie Hensley are sharing their ANCSA [Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act] experiences, and I would absolutely love to see UAA play a key role in preserving the history of ANCSA.”
And lastly, she is excited that her oldest son, Alexander, is now attending UAA. (Her youngest, Austin, wants to play professional baseball and just spent his last year of high school in Arizona playing for a varsity team as pitcher. She is no less excited for him, and neither are we!)
“Never do anything for yourself; always think about your people. Take care of your people.” That is the advice Michelle received her very first day in her position as president from the region’s traditional chief, Ben Neeley. “It is the best advice I’ve ever gotten,” she says. And it echos her sentiments for having always wanted to return to her region.
We’d say Michelle made good on her goal. Even going so far as pulling all of her corporate leadership positions back up to the region with her. She is back in Glennallen and putting her team to work.
“I wear two hats. I’m a Mom and I’m a Native woman who wants to make a positive contribution to Native people,” she says. “I am thankful for how being in this position has provided an opportunity for me to reconnect with my people and my heritage. Along with running a profitable company, I want to preserve and pass on our traditional land use history and our (Ahtna) political history. I was fortunate growing up when I did. I got to hear the words of our past leaders who established Ahtna. I knew and am related to many of them. Maybe, with what I’m able to do from a preservation standpoint, I can help carry their message to our future leaders. I want Ahtna shareholders to be proud of where they come from and of who we are. So that is my responsibility and my motivation—to make life better for shareholders, not just for today but also for the shareholders of tomorrow.”
Welcome home, Michelle.