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Mystery, controversy cloud Ninilchik tribe's past

Posted: Tuesday, June 11, 2002

The Ninilchik Traditional Council was established in 1973 to serve as a tribal government and provide social services to Alaska Natives and American Indians within its area of jurisdiction, which stretches from the Kasilof River to Kachemak Bay. The bulk of its $1.3 million annual budget comes from federal grants and contracts.

Today, its services include, among others, a medical clinic, college scholarships and housing assistance to low-income members. About 300 people are members.

Serious questions about the NTC's operations date back to at least 1996.

By the late 1990s, one branch of the Oskolkoff family came to dominate tribal management. Mother Marion Oskolkoff was the tribe's finance officer, and four of her children ran most of the administration. Debra Oskolkoff was the executive director; Marla was in charge of enrollments. Gary, Bruce and Marla's husband, Jack Kvasnikoff, dominated the five-member tribal council board. Gary Oskolkoff was the president of the board and simultaneously held a no-bid contract for management consulting with the tribe. Marion's sister-in-law, Pat Oskolkoff, was the business manager of the health clinic.

Some members complained of nepotism, inefficiencies and abuse of power and funds.

Events unfolded as follows:

1996

At the annual meeting, only 10 members showed up to vote for a board seat. They elected Joann Jackinsky, who was calling for change.

That same year, the NTC took controversial stands on Cook Inlet oil leasing and subsistence rights.

1997

On Jan. 23, the NTC office burned down, destroying many records. Investigators declared it an arson, but no one ever was arrested.

In March, the two Oskolkoff brothers and Gary Kvasnikoff voted to expel Joann Jackinsky from the board for "misbehavior." The fifth member, Sharon Culhane, voted against the expulsion and subsequently resigned in protest. About that time the Bureau of Indian Affairs began to question how the tribe was spending money.

That June, the NTC postponed its annual meeting. A group of members met on the original date anyway and elected their own slate of directors headed by Dan Leman. The tribal administration refused to accept the result, and the two groups sparred for control.

In October, the group of rebels or reformers -- depending on one's viewpoint -- attempted to remove records from the NTC office. The confrontation turned ugly, resulting in trooper involvement, and subsequently the tribal administration temporarily hired security guards.

1998

The next two board elections failed to muster a quorum and, in February, the board passed an ordinance that it could appoint its own members when voting fell short. Then it voted to disenroll 10 people, including Joann Jackinsky, Dan Leman and others involved in the protest. The two sides began suing each other, and the BIA notified the tribe that Interior had requested an investigation of tribal practices.

On June 22, the conflict went public when a BIA delegation arrived and held a town meeting. The BIA accused the tribal administration, particularly the Oskolkoffs, of obstruction and questionable dealings. The Oskolkoffs accused the BIA of fomenting rumors and overstepping its authority. Gary Oskolkoff wrote a letter of complaint to the Department of Interior undersecretary for Indian Affairs denouncing the probe as an "atrocity."

The October election was the first held by mail; voters elected LaDeanna Kvasnikoff Haynes, ousting Oskolkoff appointee Danielle Nolan.

At year's end, the BIA declared the NTC board elections invalid, due to low turnout and procedural confusion. It threatened to not renew grants and turned the investigation back to Interior's Office of the Inspector General for possible legal action.

1999

Then the situation got murky.

Agency officials backed off, and evidence suggests that no further investigations took place.

However, in May, Gary Oskolkoff resigned from the NTC board. No one has explained why, and he consistently declines to comment on the matter.

His departure calmed the situation.

That summer, an Anchorage judge dismissed the lawsuits between the NTC and the people calling themselves Concerned Tribal Members. About the same time, the Department of Housing and Urban Development expressed concerns about the tribe's lack of progress with its grants for low-income Native housing. (See related story, "Housing records taking steps in right direction".)

The controversies flared up again that fall. In the October tribal election, reformers Gary Jackinsky and Michelle Steik won seats, along with moderate incumbent Ivan Encelewski. Bruce Oskolkoff and his ally Sara Jackinsky lost.

The following months saw a flurry of activity.

The board voted to expel Haynes, claiming she had missed too many board meetings and refused to take a mandatory drug test. Haynes later told the Peninsula Clarion that the board scheduled its meetings in conflict with her work schedule and NTC staff would not even tell her when meetings were. She also alleged she had tried unsuccessfully to obtain the necessary screening tests at the tribal clinic and had offered to get a test done elsewhere on her own.

2000

After Haynes' ouster, Debra Oskolkoff fired, in rapid succession, the receptionist, housing director Mike Smith and his wife, administrative assistant Gayle Smith. The remaining board members seated Bruce Oskolkoff to replace Haynes.

The changes tipped the balance of power back toward the Oskolkoffs, but that spring Debra Oskolkoff announced her intention to resign for personal reasons after an interim period training a replacement.

The fall board election was another contentious one. Jack Kvasnikoff declined to run for re-election. Greg Encelewski Sr., Ivan's father (a board member of the Ninilchik Native Descendants and a former president of the independent corporation, the Ninilchik Native Association Inc.) won a seat. The dissident faction tried to place four petition referendums on the tribal ballot, but the administration, citing new rules, refused to put the measures to the voters.

Joann Jackinsky subsequently told the Clarion the NTC administration refused to tell petitioners how many signatures they needed to qualify a ballot measure, then told them they were five names short after they handed in petitions.

2001

In March of 2001, the tribe adopted a new constitution by a 34-11 margin. Developed with the assistance of a tribal law specialist from Outside, its goal was to clarify rules.

Ivan Encelewski, who had worked in various posts for NTC since 1996, replaced Debra Oskolkoff as executive director in May.

Also last spring, the tribal government reversed its previous stand and invited the disenrolled members to become members again. Most did so.

In the fall election, new face Doris Kelly replaced Michelle Steik on the board. Currently, Bruce Oskolkoff is the president of the board. The other members are Greg and Ivan Encelewski, Gary Jackinsky and Kelly.

2002

Several members of the Oskolkoff family retain management posts in the tribe. Specifically, Marion (finance officer), Pat (clinic business director) and Bruce (environmental program coordinator) retain their former positions, and Bruce continues to head the council's board after being re-elected in November.



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