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Irene Rowan: Iconic Alaskan


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Interior of Chief Klart-Reech’s Whale House in 1895 at Chilkat with Tlingits in traditional dance regalia.

© Winter & Pond | P87-0010 | Alaska State Library | Winter & Pond Photo Collection

When Irene Sparks Rowan stepped off a plane in Bethel she carried a white umbrella and wore white boots, a white hat, and a pink raincoat. She was there to start her first job as a teacher at the high school. “I dressed as I had in college,” she says.

It was August 1964 and it was rainy and windy. Rowan unfurled her white umbrella and walked toward the terminal. “In about five minutes my boots were brown, my hat blew away, my umbrella turned inside-out, and my raincoat was splattered with mud.”

The arrival in Bethel marked the start of Rowan’s adult life. Since then she has played a significant role in the passage of the Alaska Natives Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), run her own business, and served as a bank director. She also developed nonprofits that highlighted Alaska Natives and their cultures or advocated for Native rights. She is a respected leader whose counsel is sought by many.

Rowan had returned to Alaska only a few months earlier from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, with a BA in business education.

Bethel “was a culture shock,” she says. “I came from Haines, from a land of trees, and here I was in the wide expanse of the tundra. There were no paved roads and most people spoke Yup’ik, which I didn’t understand. It was not the Alaska I knew.”

 

A young Irene Rowan in front of the Whale House wearing an owl mask and the apron seen in the 1895 Whale House photo (lead photo, far left).

Photos courtesy of Irene Rowan

 

Two Worlds

The Alaska she knew was the Southeast—with its mountains, water, and trees. Rowan, a Tlingit Chilkat from the Gaanaxteidi clan of Klukwan, was born in Haines. Her mother, Mildred Hotch Sparks, came from Klukwan and was a matriarch of the clan. Her father William, originally from Kentucky, had been stationed at the army’s Chilkoot Barracks in Haines during World War II.

Until she left for college, Rowan says, she “walked in two worlds” as did her mother, who had moved between family life in Haines and work and tribal life in Klukwan, heading the Chilkat Indian Village IRA and running its store. Rowan and her siblings attended school in Haines but spent time in Klukwan, especially in summer.

In Klukwan Rowan participated in memorial ceremonials and traditional events. “I gathered seaweed and berries, smoked fish, and put up the food for winter. Groceries were expensive and Haines got a boat with groceries only two or three times a year,” Rowan says.

She also glimpsed a world, then already changing, when her mother went to trade with Canadian Indians. “She traded hooligan oil, seaweed, and salmon strips for tanned moose hide and gopher skins. She made our moccasins and jackets from the moose hide and blankets out of gopher skins.”

Klukwan grounded Rowan in Tlingit culture and important Chilkat values of hard work, honesty, and trustworthiness. Her mother instilled the values of respect, caring, and sharing with others. In high school she helped form the Chilkat Dancers, strengthening her Tlingit identity further.

“That was a very exciting time for me. The Chilkat Dancers instilled in us the importance of our culture. It gave us pride in our art and language and what being a Chilkat meant.” Being a dancer also increased her confidence, Rowan says. “I felt inspired when I put on my regalia and empowered when I heard my music and performed my dance.”

The group danced for tourists at the tribal house in Port Chilkoot, near Klukwan, and at Native dance competitions in the Lower 48. In 1959, in her last year of high school, the dancers took the grand prize at the International Intertribal Indian Dance Ceremonial festival in Gallup, New Mexico.

The dancing was also important because Christianity had suppressed the Native culture in many other parts of Alaska, but the Chilkats found a way to balance their culture with religion, Rowan says.

In her younger days Rowan dreamed of teaching, but in high school she wanted to become an air force pilot. Her parents discouraged that idea and insisted that she go to college.

After a year at a teachers’ school in Minot, North Dakota, Rowan transferred to Western Washington University. Summer jobs in Haines paid for college, and she graduated in 1964.

“Growing up I walked in two worlds, but wherever I was I remembered my mom’s explanation that the eyes on woven Chilkat blankets meant ‘there are always eyes on you,’” she says. She also kept in mind her mother’s role as the clan’s matriarch and a leader. “I was ‘miss goody two-shoes’ because anything I did reflected on her. But in college, away from that, I was free.”

Was she a serious student? “Heck no,” Rowan replies.

 

Finding the Future

The college years were mostly about “living life and having a good time,” Rowan says. Her college friend Lou McKee remembers that “Irene was the most fun, the cutest, and among the most popular girls on campus.” And, McKee says, she loved to dance. “When Irene learned the cha-cha she’d practice the dance walking the five blocks from campus to our house, and people would just smile at her.”

Through most of her college years, Rowan gave scant thought to her future. But McKee says her friend was far from frivolous. “Even then I saw that Irene was an idea person and a networker who was able to persuade others to help her put those ideas into action,” McKee says.

She saw those attributes, says McKee, when Rowan talked her into pitching in to acquire a car for their group. “Irene sold me on the idea that a car would allow us to do more,” McKee says. She had no regrets about that decision even though it meant that she spent more time working to pay for the car than she did driving it.

It was in the last quarter of college that Rowan decided on a teaching career. She returned to Haines, applied for teaching jobs, and was hired by the state to teach business at Bethel High School. Soon she changed from the carefree college girl into a person who cared deeply about many issues.

“The change was instantaneous,” Rowan says. It started almost from the moment she landed. “Within a few hours in Bethel, I realized that this was a whole new world.” In that world she became involved in politics and became interested in the passage of a land settlement for all of Alaska’s Native people.

The first year was busy. Rowan taught business and girls’ PE and was an advisor for the junior class, the school newspaper, and the yearbook. She met a young teacher named Mike Rowan and within five months they were married. After her first child, Mia, was born in 1966, she stopped teaching full-time and took a job as a city clerk.

She entered politics when a group of students noted that Bethel, with its majority Yup’ik population, had no Yup’ik representative on the city council. “The students selected three Yup’ik candidates. The social studies teacher and I helped plan a campaign. They made posters, went door-to-door, and got the vote out. All three candidates were elected,” Rowan says, who nearly lost her job over it.

The political involvement deepened when she and her husband met Mike Gravel, then Speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives. Gravel was conducting hearings on education, something that Rowan cared deeply about.

Soon both Rowans were involved in Gravel’s campaign for the US House, which he lost. Gravel ran again, for the US Senate, and hired Mike Rowan to run his campaign. The Rowans then moved to Anchorage, where their second daughter, Rochene, was born.

The land claims movement was also gaining momentum. Rowan was aware of the issue since childhood from her mother’s involvement in the Tlingit’s land claims effort. “My mom was a true champion of Alaska Native rights and a strong champion for the land claims,” Rowan says.

Shortly before leaving Bethel Rowan helped start the Kuskokwim Valley Native Association. She attended the organizing meeting for the Alaska Federation of Natives in Anchorage as a representative of the association.

 

Irene Rowan now (left) and as a teen (right) wearing the beaded Chilkat Dancer regalia her mother made, with woodworm on the front and raven on the back.

Left 2 © Chris Arend Photography | Right 1 Courtesy of Irene Rowan

 

‘Unheralded’ ANCSA Role

The role Rowan played in ANCSA is not as well-known as that of others, mostly men. Women were involved, but more at the support level.

After Gravel’s election Mike Rowan went to work for him in Washington, and the Rowans also moved there. To help get the ANCSA bill through Congress, Rowan regularly attended meetings at the Capitol with other Alaskans. Gravel was committed to helping, and Rowan’s role was significant: “I had Mike Gravel’s ear and I could provide insight,” Rowan says.

“Irene played a quiet role, but it was very important,” Mike Gravel says. “Her contribution to ANCSA was equal to any individual male leader but she was unheralded in the role she played.”

Gravel praises Rowan’s style. “Irene has a natural humbleness, and in meetings she guided discussions in a nuanced way, without offending anyone. She quietly did her work in the background,” he says.

A week after ANCSA passed, Rowan returned to Alaska. After a period she became active in her village corporation, Klukwan, Inc.

Rowan employed her knowledge of Washington, DC and political acumen on Klukwan’s behalf. Klukwan, one of six federal reserves in Alaska, was governed by its IRA council. As a reserve, Klukwan had a choice under ANCSA to either fully participate in ANCSA (select land and receive monetary compensation) or to take title to the surface and the subsurface estate of its reserve and receive no money. Both options required that it form a corporation.

In 1973, Klukwan chose to accept title to its eight-hundred-acre reserve. In 1975, Rowan became Klukwan, Inc.’s president, and the board gave her a daunting task: “My mandate was to secure all the benefits of ANCSA for the 253 shareholders and also to preserve the rights of the 80 members of the Chilkat Indian Village IRA.” That required an amendment to ANCSA recognizing Klukwan as an ANCSA village corporation entitled to both acreage (23,040 acres) and cash.

The Klukwan team, led by Rowan, succeeded in getting two bills passed in 1976 to achieve that. The first, adopted in January 1976, recognized Klukwan, Inc. as a village corporation entitled to land, money, and other ANCSA benefits and returned the reserve land to the village IRA. The second allowed Klukwan to select lands outside its original withdrawal area, which had been selected by the state.

Getting even one piece of legislation in a year is difficult but getting two through “is quite a coup,” says Don Argetsinger, a close friend and colleague in Washington who later worked for Klukwan. “Irene had a strong resolve to improve Klukwan’s situation. She understood the legislative process and how Washington worked.”

Klukwan showed its gratitude for Rowan’s work by firing her. “I was devastated, it was a tough political lesson,” she says. But she was not down. Her consulting firm, Kish Tu, was one of the few women-owned companies breaking new ground bidding on government contracts.

 

Action and Diplomacy

Writer and reporter Lael Morgan worked with Rowan at Kish Tu and has known her since 1972. Morgan speaks highly of Rowan’s diplomatic skills, both on professional and personal levels: “I wrote a report on a government contract. When Irene reviewed it she found some numbers were backward. Instead of getting upset, Irene quietly said, ‘Lael, I think you have the same problem as my daughter.’” Morgan was dyslexic but didn’t know it.

In the late ‘70s, Rowan became special assistant to the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the US Department of the Interior. She spent another two years in Washington working on amendments to ANCSA and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Klukwan, Inc. continued to play a role in Rowan’s life. Klukwan had formed a major timber company based on harvesting its timber on Long Island, but by 1996 those days of big revenues were ending.

Rowan was on Klukwan’s board, and to safeguard its assets the board set up three trusts, one each for shareholder dividends, education, and land management. Rowan cares deeply about education and wanted to ensure that Klukwan shareholders had help with educational expenses, Argetsinger says.

While at Klukwan Rowan also made a point of working closely with other village corporations in the Southeast. Joe Beedle, chief executive officer of Northrim Bank, was president of Goldbelt, Inc., the Juneau Native village corporation, when Rowan was at Klukwan. They were both active in the Southeast Alaska Native Presidents Association, which Rowan helped set up.

“Goldbelt was interested in timber operations and Irene shared her expertise with us. The Kensington Mine was also about to start operations and there were concerns about its impacts. In the association’s discussions with the mine Irene insisted that in exchange for the Native corporations’ support the mine should provide training and jobs,” Beedle says. The mine agreed.

In the years since leaving Klukwan, Rowan has kept up with many issues and is known for organizing events and discussions. A few years ago, on the fortieth anniversary of ANCSA, she organized forums that brought together the people who had worked on it.

Rowan wanted to make sure that young people had a chance to hear about the history of ANCSA from those who were involved. One forum dealt specifically with the role of women in ANCSA.

Today, Rowan is still busy. In May she retired after twenty-five years on the board of Northrim Bank. She recently organized the Alaska Native Media Group to promote Alaska Natives in all fields of media. Among other things the group is working on a resource book with information about correct ways of naming and spelling that will be useful to those writing about Alaska Natives.

Angela Gonzalez, an Athabascan blogger in the group, is impressed with Rowan’s skills at getting people to work together.

“Irene assigns tasks to the right people and makes sure they are being carried out. She does this in a gentle way, always with a smile and people find it hard to say no to her,” Gonzalez says.

The future for Natives and all Alaskans is full of promises, Rowan feels. She is proud of the success of the ANCSA corporations, the new cadre of educated Native managers, and all the young people who have benefitted from corporate scholarships.

Even as oil prices slide and Alaska’s future looks uncertain, Rowan says the Alaska Native corporations will continue to grow and add to the Alaska economy. “The corporations are a major landowner in the state and with proper management and leadership they will continue to benefit their shareholders and the rest of the state.”

This article first appeared in the October 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.  

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