Yakutat ousted its village corporations’ leaders. Here’s what’s next.

An interview with Meda DeWitt, a former chair of the Recall Dunleavy campaign who now leads the board of directors of Yak-Tat Kwaan, the village corporation in the Southeast Alaska community

By: Nathaniel Herz, Northern Journal

Stacked logs are seen in Yakutat on June 3, 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

The saga in the Southeast Alaska village of Yakutat is over.

Or, it’s just starting.

After years of conflict, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Laura Hartz in October certified that a group of dissident shareholders had won an election and ousted the pro-logging board of Yakutat’s Indigenous-owned village corporation, Yak-Tat Kwaan.

A Yak-Tat Kwaan subsidiary, Yak Timber, had been clear-cutting areas of the village corporation’s land. Harvests continued over strident opposition from some shareholders, Yakutat’s tribal government and regional Native leaders, who objected to environmental impacts and said the effort threatened a sacred and historic site.

Yak Timber filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, as its lender, AgWest Farm Credit, sued over more than $13 million in outstanding loans. Yak-Tat Kwaan’s dissident shareholders then filed their own suit asking the courts to force a board election, after incumbent members had repeatedly postponed meetings.

Hartz, the judge, sided with the dissidents, and the resulting September election was hard-fought. Emotions ran so high that at one point, Yak-Tat Kwaan’s incumbent chief executive and board president, Shari Jensen, offered a shareholder “two jars of seal oil” to retract her dissident-aligned vote, according to a message obtained by Northern Journal.

Text messages sent by Shari Jensen, Yak-Tat Kwaan’s former chief executive

Jensen confirmed sending the text but said she didn’t follow through on the offer, even after the recipient said that seal oil “sounds great.”

“It was the only offer I made and it just didn’t feel right,” Jensen said in a text message to Northern Journal.

Yak-Tat Kwaan’s new board chair is Meda DeWitt. DeWitt, a traditional Indigenous healer and educator, has previous political experience: She chaired the high-profile, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to recall GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy, which launched in 2019.

DeWitt, in a recent phone interview, spoke about her involvement with Yak-Tat Kwaan, the campaign to take control of the corporation and the new board’s vision.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Northern Journal: How did you get involved with the group trying to take control of the board?

Meda DeWitt: They called me, and I said I would be part of it. I am a shareholder of Yak-Tat Kwaan, and have experience with community organizing. And so, not only it was appropriate for me to intervene, it was also, like, ancestral mandate or responsibility to intervene.

Northern Journal: You guys won. Now you’re actually in control. What are you facing? What do you have to do now?

Meda DeWitt: Oh, my gosh. Well, it’s a $14 million bankruptcy. And there are creditors that are secured and there are creditors that are unsecured. Immediately, what we’re having to do is make choices for this logging equipment, in a way that will satisfy the bankruptcy judge and the debtors. We’re also doing as much as we can so that the bankruptcy doesn’t actually cripple Yak-Tat Kwaan, or the community.

It’s actually a really sticky space because in the community, the only actual land-clearing equipment there is — it’s the Kwaan who has the most equipment. The city even uses Yak Timber equipment if there’s exponential snowfall that they can’t handle themselves. This equipment is actually necessary, if anybody wants to build new homes, put in new roads.

So, our job is to be mindful that Yak-Tat Kwaan is important to the community, and Yak Timber’s equipment was important to this community. And how we can best act in a way that benefits all parties, if possible.

Northern Journal: Are the creditors in the bankruptcy being reasonable and understanding about where you are?

Meda DeWitt: Yes and no. AgWest has lawyers that represent them. And we have lawyers that represent us. The board has met with their lawyers. And the thing about AgWest is, they were originally led to believe that the community supported the logging. Once they found out that the community and the shareholders didn’t support the logging, it made them very cautious. Because what they don’t want is to be seen as the bad guys.

So, they are doing what they can, within the reality that we’re dealing with, to work with us in a way that is conscientious to the needs of the shareholders in the community. And so they’ve been an advocate. They hear us. They understand what we want to do.

They want to work with us within the guidelines of what the court’s going to allow, and also securing the money to pay off the debt. I feel optimistic, in a very dark situation, that they’re going to do what they can to help us.

Northern Journal: Can you say with confidence and certainty that Yak-Tat Kwaan is not going to be in the logging business anymore?

Meda DeWitt: In the clear-cutting business, we’re done. The reason I want to use the words, specifically, ‘clear cutting’ — and it’s also large log kind of logging — we’re not going to be in that business. However, we’re going to try to retain some of the equipment. Because, you know, we have a sawmill and kilns. If we clear a road, then we can use that timber to provide low cost building supplies to the community.

Northern Journal: You sound like the previous board now!

Meda DeWitt: Oh, no. Well, shame on you (laughs). Well, we had to have this conversation as a board: ‘Are we loggers? No, we’re not loggers. But do we want to be mindful, so that we can build affordable housing?’

If people are clearing their own property so that they can build, then that can be used, instead of just being bucked up and thrown to the side. But are we loggers? No. Are we going to be in the logging industry? No. Am I ever going to cut a tree down? Probably, at least one. I don’t want to say never.

Northern Journal: Does the new board, at this point, have a vision for Yakutat? Or do you guys already have your hands more than full, dealing with the bankruptcy?

Meda DeWitt: Yes and no. We have all the things that we have to deal with now, that are high priority. We don’t want to get distracted, right? But we also have to maintain, because Yak Timber wasn’t the only subsidiary or business that Yak-Tat Kwaan has. And there were some activities that were already in the works, and when we have time to focus on them, we will.

It’s like this tiered model, right? First priority: What’s already plausible that was in the works? And then, let’s vision. The community gave us some direction already, at the shareholder meeting, of things that they would like to see. When it gets time to do the big picture visioning, we will probably invite the whole community in and have a potluck and talk about: What do they want their community to look like?

Northern Journal: What would you be personally excited to see Yak-Tat Kwaan doing with its land base and assets, aside from logging?

Meda DeWitt: The caveat is that the shareholders and board have to decide. But I think that there’s so much opportunity in Yakutat. Yakutat is an absolutely beautiful place to be. And the temperature is so much more temperate than other parts of the state, because it has those Pacific Ocean currents that come up. And it’s got beautiful black sands and surfing and fishing.

One of the things that is blatantly clear is that a lot of the land is already cut, and pretty barren. Some of those spaces, what I would like to see is housing, so people can effectively live in Yakutat who want to stay in Yakutat. Another thing would be, of course, food production. Yakutat is like the last stop on the ferry. And I think we could do things like grow hemp, for fiber or seeds or other purposes, because there’s so much land that is cleared. I would like to see some forest remediation happen. There’s people who want to get into maritime farming, like for seaweed, kelp. They used to have oysters that were amazing. We could start that up again.

I don’t want to tell you too much, because there’s some good ones in there. But it’s around sustainability and building up community, renewable energy, food sources, safety and security, meeting those basic needs first, and then thinking about, ‘How do we supply externally to others?’ That’s based on more of a traditional structure of economics.

Northern Journal: Is it fair to say that there are still some pretty intense divisions? It seems like there’s still a significant group of folks in town that maybe didn’t love what was happening, but were at least willing to stick the course with the incumbent board and with logging.

Meda DeWitt: Of course. There’s people who love them and want to believe that they’re doing the best that they can. And it’s a small community. So, there is going to have to be some healing around this. Not just for them and their family members or their advocates, but also for the people who were harmed in the decisions that they made. Just because they’re gone doesn’t mean that the wound is healed.

This is small-town Alaska. Everybody is either related or has known each other since they were kids. And it has to be dealt with in one way or another. But it also needs a little bit of time.

Northern Journal: Is this going to be something you’re going to try to stick with for a while, even if it wasn’t necessarily exactly where you saw your life going? Or do you feel like a lot of the new board members only want to be there for a little while — and then hopefully find, you know, younger shareholders to run the company?

Meda DeWitt: That kind of gets answered for us, because we’re elected.

But no, this is not something where I woke up one day and said, ‘I want to be in charge of a Native corporation.’

A lot of my work is around tribal health, traditional healing, plants as food and medicine, traditional foods, a lot of nonprofit spaces, conservation. But I get fired up about politics. And there’s a lot of people who want to see change, but may not have the ability to step into those spaces of governance to help affect it directly.

I did have to make space in my life for this. I had to step down from some of the boards that I’m on. I still have my full-time job at my contracting business.

But if we do not do it, then who will? We can talk about it, or we can do something about it. And I found that my experience in grassroots organizing, and in political activities like the recall — those experiences came in, in a way that I didn’t even know that they would.

And I need you to make sure that you don’t give me all the credit, because it was a group-led effort with a lot of really powerful people. But the strategy and understanding of behavior and organizing came in, in a way that was beneficial for this.

There has to be that follow-through commitment. Because, okay, we take down the board, and now what? That’s only part of the commitment. The commitment, then, is to realize the vision of what people were hoping for when they followed you into that battle.

Northern Journal: What else do you want people to know?

Meda DeWitt: I think that one of the biggest takeaways is: The power resides in the shareholders. We’ve learned a lot of lessons about extractive industry and what it does to our lands, our people, the animals, plants, the environment around us. And we’ve seen that devastation play out.

And we’re now at this time where we can use that experience and wisdom, combined with our traditions, to have business that mirrors our values — driven by our values. And there’s a lot of corporations around the state who may or may not be operating in the way that their shareholders feel that they should be. And they definitely have the ability to take a stand and take charge and navigate either their board, or run for the board themselves, and be able to steer that ship.

What we’re dealing with, collectively, is the structure of capitalism that wanted to maximize output and profit at the expense of people and the environment, in our future. And so, this is the kind of action that people actually need to take. I think that there’s definitely a narrative that can speak to and inspire folks into action. Like, there is a way to go through this process; you can be successful. And look, we were successful.

Nathaniel Herz welcomes tips at natherz@gmail.com or (907) 793-0312. This article was originally published in Northern Journal, a newsletter from Herz. Subscribe at this link.