Five years ago, controversy nearly destroyed the Ninilchik Traditional Council.
Now the tribal government has new management, new board members and a new constitution. Members are ambivalent, mingling concerns that old wrongs were never resolved with hope that new leadership will build trust and credibility.
"I think there is still a lot of frustration with the way things are done," said Dan Leman. "On the other hand, a lot of changes have been made, and many of those changes are positive."
Leman was one of 10 people the tribe's board of directors expelled in March 1998. Last year, the new tribal administration invited those people to reapply for membership. Leman said he signed up, now votes in tribal elections, but still cannot bring himself to visit the tribal office.
Ivan Encelewski took over as NTC's executive director in May 2001. A former Ninilchik School valedictorian and a six-year tribal employee, he was first appointed to the NTC board in 1999, after the resignation of controversial president Gary Oskolkoff. Encelewski replaced former director Debra Oskolkoff, Gary's sister and part of the family group that dominated the tribe for years and provoked a fire storm of criticism. (See related story, "Housing records taking steps in right direction".)
The new director is pursuing policies of reconciliation and openness that are winning approval even from those embittered by the past.
"We have endured a lot throughout these years, and part of the goal in my administration has been to enhance the working relationships with other entities, which include our village and regional corporation and their nonprofits, as well as the community and other pertinent organizations," Encelewski said.
Those involved in past conflicts now are mending fences.
"We are really trying not to look back," said Bruce Oskolkoff, current president of the tribal board.
The tribe still has problems and unresolved issues, but now people approach them in a more rational and constructive way, he said.
In the past couple years, new people have found seats in the top tier of the tribal management and on the board.
The number of people voting has climbed from a low of 10 in 1996 to 49 in the most recent election, held in November.
Greg Encelewski Sr., Ivan's father, was elected to the NTC board in 2000. He also serves on the board of the Ninilchik Native Descendants (an independent group set up during the troubled times to promote cultural activities) and was a past president of the separate corporation, the Ninilchik Native Association Inc. In prior years, the traditional council was at odds with the Native association, and critics of the traditional council dominated the Native descendants group.
Ivan Encelewski said the tribe is enthused about its new partnership with the NNAI. The two groups plan to collaborate on land development projects.
"This is just one example of the positive relationships that we have developed, and we truly are on the right track," he said.
Bruce Oskolkoff agreed. Relationships between the traditional council and the Native association have had ups and downs over the years. But the bitter controversies of the recent past had more to do with individual personalities than with the organizations themselves. Disagreements are smaller and better defined now, he said.
"We understand the need to work together for mutual benefit," he said.
Greg Encelewski Sr. said the most recent election was the smoothest ever, and the current board the most diverse in a long time.
Both Encelewskis have been promoting peace among the factions.
Ninilchik Traditional Council Executive Director Ivan Encelewski is working to advance the organizations goals.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"A lot of positive steps have been taken in the last couple years," Greg Encelewski Sr. said. "I think trust has been built up a lot. ... My goal has been to at least get everyone talking."
He criticized the former tribal heads for their policy of stifling communications. Their secrecy seemed to inflame suspicions and made the situation look worse than it was. But now that he is involved with running the tribe, he has more sympathy for what they were doing or trying to do, he said.
"The more I went along, I could see there were two sides to this story," he said.
Bruce Oskolkoff said the tribe has changed its approach to communication. During previous troubles, administrators felt others distorted their words and information, so they stopped communicating.
That approach has been abandoned. Now the administration favors openness, he said.
"We don't have people so misinformed," he said. "Definitely there has been a vast improvement in relations with our membership."
Outside observers share the view that the NTC has weathered the storm.
Warren Heisler, the deputy Alaska area director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which investigated the tribe in 1998, said, "After Gary Oskolkoff left, things pretty much calmed down."
The tribe's attorney, Alaska Native law specialist David Case of Anchorage, said the tribe is fine now.
The Anchorage Superior Court dismissed lawsuits NTC and dissident members filed against each other. NTC is stronger than it was before the troubles, and members have sorted problems out on their own. The NTC troubles were not unique, but fairly common among all governments, tribal or otherwise, Case said.
He attributed the turmoil to the democratic process.
"I think part of democracy is chaos," he said. "That's what keeps us free."
Current tribal leaders say past probes cleared the NTC and its leaders of wrongdoing.
Bruce Oskolkoff said none of the programs are under any probation or special monitoring at this time.
"In most of the programs we have very high recommendations," he said. "The agencies are really standing with us."
"The BIA really found nothing," Greg Encelewski Sr. said.
Case agreed. Tribal elections were fair, and the agencies never took any administrative actions against the tribe, he said.
The tribe's most vocal critics remain skeptical on that point.
Leman said concerned tribal members collected reams of evidence documenting a compelling case for corruption among the Oskolkoff family leadership. But while the NTC insiders used tribal money to hire Case and other top legal talent, the dissidents had to scrape for pennies.
"Every agency we talked to basically had the same answer. They said we were dealing with a government to government situation, and (the tribal managers) had their rights. ...
"It was kind of an eye-opener."
Leman said his group eventually burned out in frustration. They got the sense that Native sovereignty issues were so confusing and touchy that the agencies refused to pursue the case. Officials kept telling them to resolve the issues themselves.
In a sense, the former antagonists have reached a sort of stalemate, and most tribal members are putting the conflicts behind them.
The investigations petered out, but the most controversial Oskolkoffs, Gary and Debra, now are out of the tribal power structure.
"I think (reform) is happening. It is just happening really slow," Leman said.
Greg Encelewski Sr. said the tribe always will have critics. But from his vantage, NTC has turned the corner and is successfully addressing the concerns of most tribal members.
"You wouldn't believe it from what it was two years ago," he said.
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