I AM UAA: Dalee Sambo Dorough

January 29, 2013

I AM UAA: Dalee Sambo Dorough Assistant Professor of Political Science
Anchorage, Alaska
Fun Fact: Her daughter was born the day after she completed comprehensive exams for her Ph.D.

Dalee Sambo Dorough counts herself as a member of Alaska’s “pipeline generation”—those who witnessed the major oil discovery on the North Slope, the building of the trans—Alaska pipeline, and the adoption of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) as teenagers. And while not every teenager was paying close attention, Dalee was riveted.

“I was just a kid in junior high school, but I got my hands on a copy of ANCSA and read it and knew there were problems with it—from my point of view, there were problems with it. From that point on, I knew I would focus on issues affecting Alaska Natives and the rights of Alaska Native peoples.”

For the last 35 or so years, that’s exactly what she’s done. She’s worked in international relations with non-governmental organizations like the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), helping to draft and champion the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2007. In 2010, President Barack Obama stated that the U.S. would lend its support to the Declaration. In addition to this major human rights development, in 2011, Dalee was appointed to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by the U.N. Secretary General following her nomination by the ICC and the Sami Council. Recently, she was re-nominated to serve a second three-year term.

Along the way she earned a master’s degree in law and diplomacy from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a Ph.D. in law from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. (Bonus fun fact: her daughter was born in British Columbia and has been known to disagree with her Alaskan parents at times stating, “These are your political problems, I’m Canadian.”) Even buried under books Dalee was never quite able to hit pause on her advocacy work, choosing instead to keep one foot in the political arena.

Dalee accepted her current post as assistant professor of political science, specializing in international relations, in 2008, but it’s not her first time in the classroom at UAA. After earning her master’s degree in Massachusetts, she returned to her hometown of Anchorage and worked as an adjunct with the Department of Political Science, teaching Alaska Native Politics and Tribes, Nations and Peoples courses. Even before that, she was a student at Anchorage Community College, UAA’s predecessor, just after writing her own ticket out of high school.

Dalee didn’t take the usual route to her high school diploma. Anxious to be working in the real world, she told the principal that political science courses of her own creation, often involving experiential learning, were going to serve her better in the long run. And he eventually agreed. She worked on the campaign team for Eben Hopson, then mayor of the North Slope Borough and running against Don Young for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976. Unfortunately, Hopson lost. However, his political approach was exceptionally comprehensive.

“I convinced the principal that these things were more relevant to me than high school happened to be,” Dalee recalls with a smile. Before graduating in 1977, she also was able to help Hopson and the North Slope Borough by volunteering at the first-ever meeting of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Barrow. “He had incredible foresight in terms of the place of Inuit in the Arctic, the need for coastal zone management, the need for Inuit to have a say and capture a slice of the pie in relation to the certain development of oil and gas,” she says. “Inuit from Alaska, Canada and Greenland all came together and that was another one of my high school projects.”

Dalee also completed the American Indian Lawyer Training Program and earned a Tribal Court Advocate certificate…well before there were many functioning tribal courts in Alaska and before she accepted her high school diploma.

So it should come as no surprise that Dalee eventually went on to dedicate herself to work with the Inuit Circumpolar Council before she had completed all of her classes for a bachelor’s degree from ACC/UAA. The draw of working on issues she was passionate about was just too strong.

Now, as a political science professor, she’s eager to facilitate real-world experiences for her students. She understands that those life-changing moments where you decide exactly what and where you want to be can happen young and they don’t always happen in the classroom. For the last two years she’s taken small cohorts of UAA students to meetings of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Students from UAA’s Model U.N. program have accompanied her as well as Alaska Native students who have completed the Tribes, Nations and Peoples course.

“It’s a way for students to think about important issues in not only abstract and academic terms, but to put them on the ground and put them to work on substantive issues,” she says. “For these young Alaska Native students, in particular, they have a vested interest, a stake, in what happens when the United States responds to issues that affect Alaska Natives.”

In New York this past May, she brought two of her Alaska Native students along to a meeting with a delegation of members from the State Department at which she was representing the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “The students thought they would simply be observers, but we got into a discussion of relevant policy issues the U.S. was concerned about, especially as we approach the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples,” she recalls. At the conclusion of the discussion, she turned to her students and invited them to weigh in. “Neither of them hesitated. They both just jumped right in with both feet, expressing their views. It was really cool to see.”

Also in May 2012, she was invited to appear on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez in a discussion of sexual violence and natural resource pillaging. You can watch the broadcast here.

You can still see something of that junior high school student in Dalee, who made a commitment to her teenage self to safeguard the rights of her people. Her passion and energy are infectious. She says she often finds herself questioning how and where she will be the most effective. “You have to have a good balance,” she says. Should she devote her time to being in the classroom educating future leaders, in the boardroom debating issues, collaborating with indigenous colleagues from Finland, Norway, Russia and New Zealand? Of late, it’s “all of the above.”

She and her husband who she met and married in Alaska also own and operate a construction company and have a daughter who is about to graduate from high school, so family life is high on the priority list. On a recent tour of colleges back East, Dalee was able to introduce one of her old professors at The Fletcher School to her daughter. He told her, “You know your mother is one of the few students who ever came here with more real international experience than most of the faculty.”

“That made me feel pretty good,” she says. It felt like a validation of her non-traditional path. It had taken her almost a decade of working with the Inuit Circumpolar Council and other Indigenous organizations before she entertained the idea of graduate school. And when she applied to The Fletcher School, she didn’t technically have a bachelor’s degree, but they read in her resume what was missing from her transcript. And then some.

Dalee is excited to be working with students here at UAA. And she’s happy to note the growing number of Alaska Native faculty. “Now in 2013 to know that you have touch points and people beyond yourself—Edgar Blatchford, Jeane Breinig, Maria Williams, Phyllis Fast and others that have been brought on board—it’s important and good to have that linkage,” she says, as much for her as for current and prospective Alaska Native students. “In keeping with the Strategic Plan 2017, I want to help internationalize the campus and to better engage Alaska Native students.” To that, we say, “Quyana.”

And to all those students who might be in search of a mentor who understands that you can write your own ticket out of college, we say, “Meet Professor Dalee Sambo Dorough.”

University of Alaska Anchorage - University Advancement
3211 Providence Dr. Suite 236 - Anchorage, AK 99508
UA is an AA/EO employer and educational institution and prohibits illegal discrimination against any individual: www.alaska.edu/titleIXcompliance/nondiscrimination