Series: Working past retirement in Alaska
November 1, 2023 | View PDF
This interview was conducted on Oct. 8, 2023, at Village Inn in Anchorage.
Wilson Justin, please tell us a bit about your early history.
Everybody calls me Justin, but it doesn't make much difference. It's Wilson Justin. I turned 73 on August 2, this year. I was born in Nabesna, Alaska, which is part of the Nabesna Valley, which is an old traditional homeland. I was born about six miles from the original village, 1950, mid-century.
How about some high points of your work history?
The guiding business. That's where I really enjoyed myself. To me, I was a total person when I was in the guiding industry with horses. I was the real Wilson, but there was other stuff there, part of my background. So I got to thinking, "Well, doggone it, I'm an alcoholic. I have all these addictions, but still I have a responsibility to continue."
So, after I stopped drinking in 1983, my next step was to step into the tribal governance arena by going to work basically for free-there's no money there. Anything I do, there is no money when I start. There's none of this white man's stuff, having a giant paycheck waved in your face. It's a barren ground when you go there. You have to grow the crop.
I went to work in the fall or spring of '84, about March. Went to work at Cheesh'na Tribal Council and I was there like seven months. And I shouldn't say that was whole months because I took time off for guiding, working horses, stuff like that. Since I wasn't getting paid I didn't have to show up. But I immersed myself in the question, the issue of what is the role and responsibility of tribal governance.
The last job I was really involved with was Tribal administration with Cheesh'na Tribal Council for several years. But that ended in 2012 because of health issues. High blood pressure, the whole nine yards from 30 years of just office atmosphere. That was probably the most interesting job I had in terms of my interest, which was tribal governance activities related to not only the environment, the climate change field, but also the question of what the next generation needs to know.
But before that, I was Health Director for sixteen and a half years for Mt. Sanford Tribal Consortium. I also spent time as President and CEO of Ahtna Incorporated, my home legal corporation.
When did you retire from the corporate world of work?
That was in 2012.
Since then, as I understand, you've been doing some volunteering, consulting, teaching. You're well past 65, so the question is, why have you continued?
Well, there's no question there. There's just a lack of understanding, but you're a Western mindset about what it is that constitutes a person. I do what I do because I'm Indian. I came out of a traditional governance system. I'm a descendant of a medicine man. And if you don't do what I do, the old people would say "you curse yourself. You will never go where you're supposed to go after you pass."
So, it had nothing to do with what I like, or what my money concerns are. That's an extraordinarily difficult process for the euro-western mindset to accommodate. You always get this jaw drop on the table. And then the follow up question, "Wow, that sounds stupid."
Of course it does. That's why America has gone crazy, because they refuse to accommodate the fact that indigenous societies saw the issue of today's responsibility 5,000 years ago. And so what you're really asking me is, what's the difference between indigenous societies' thought process on duties and responsibilities, and the Western immigrant who came to America. Not that much different. We were born and raised to duties and responsibilities.
But a Western system is abhorrently racist in terms of who should have duty and responsibility. In the Western world I am supposed to be mopping floors and shining cars, washing cars, not being a political leader or a hereditary leader or a frontrunner. So I do what I do because of folks, and every one of my cousins
... If you ask them the same question, they'd look at you like, where'd that question come from? I do what I do because I'm supposed to.
Are you on any boards at this time?
I was on lots of them. Right now I'm still on the Alaska Native Health Board, and I serve as Board Chair for Mt. Sanford Tribal Consortium. I'm on the Advisory Council for Molly of Denali and I'm on the Elders Advisory Council at Alaska Pacific University.
I'm involved with Northern Latitude Partnership Organization, which has several major components which look at community sustainability and community resilience. In terms of climate change, there's over 400 people involved, maybe 55 villages, three major conservation units. So, there's no way you can say I'm in the middle of anything there. But I help work on the question of identifying the kind of process needed for that group to move into a place where they were affected.
And I also serve one of the few paying capacities, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who paid me a couple of times a year to lecture in their training session for their folks. There is a little bit of a demand for my time at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, on the basis of they have a community planning process. Part of what they want from me is how to speak to these issues without losing your audience.
All of them are eventually paid. I don't ask for it. It disturbed me that they would even ask for a W-9. In our tradition, I'm not supposed to sell our ancestors' knowledge. That's like asking to have what I would call a curse put on them. But you cannot get that across to anybody in Western society because everybody is focused on the idea that if they pay me, they can use my knowledge.
Anything else you would like to say before wrapping this up?
I could say that my life has always been not of my choosing. I have such an enormous sense of duty and responsibility that I couldn't say no. So, I spend half my time trying to figure out how to say no without saying no. And I think that sums up a whole generation of elders at our levels, at our age. We never could figure out how to say no.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.