Documents from the Wrangell Chamber of Commerce’s September 30 economic forum.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

An event billed as the first annual forum on Wrangell’s economic future has prompted local conversations about inclusion and racism. 

In late September, Wrangell’s Chamber of Commerce sponsored the economic forum, meant to bring together local economic and political stakeholders, but the five-hour event was marred by a lack of community representation, political grandstanding, and racist remarks. 

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“I came away feeling rather disturbed,” says Aaltséen Esther Reese, the tribal administrator for the Wrangell Cooperative Association, the local tribal government. She attended the forum, which was held on a Friday afternoon (September 30) in a packed gathering room in the Church of God Community Center. 

“It actually took me all weekend to process through and get over even attending the forum,” Reese continues. “I was disappointed. The panel was very exclusionary, there was a complete lack of tribal representation on the panel. There was only one woman… It would have been nice if they had reached out to the tribe and asked us for participation.”

Presenters at the event included Wrangell Borough Manager Jeff Good and Economic Development Director Carol Rushmore; Ph.D. candidate Ryan Naylor, who is doing research in Southeast communities; state house Rep. Dan Ortiz and challenger Jeremy Bynum; retired fisherman and businessman Mike Lockabey; Salvation Army Lt. Jon Tollerud; California entrepreneur Kevin Jones and California-based businessman Jim Freeman. Freeman owns property in Wrangell. State Senator Bert Stedman also made last-minute remarks, and former governor Frank Murkowski led a brief discussion at the end of the event.

There were no local businesses included in the speaking lineup. And there was no one from Wrangell’s tribal government — even though it’s a major economic driver in the community. 

Over the past few years, Reese says the Wrangell Cooperative Association has spent millions of dollars paving city roads ($2.8 million) and partnering with the U.S. Forest Service on culvert and trail projects ($750,000). The local library, senior center and EMS have received tens of thousands of dollars from the tribe – an $87,000 pass-through grant for the senior center, $10,000 for library supplies, and $86,000 for ambulance gear for emergency services. 

Plus, tribal member assistance programs have returned millions of dollars to Wrangell’s economy: “We have pumped $4.5 million into the Wrangell economy through tribal programs in the last couple of years,” Reese says.

She says it was a slap in the face for the tribe not to be acknowledged or asked to present. 

Chamber of Commerce Director Brittani Robbins, who organized the event, says it wasn’t the chamber’s intent to be exclusionary, and says the event got out of hand. She attributes that primarily to political campaigning at the event, as well as the fact that almost every speaker went over their allotted 15-20 minute time constraint.

She says the chamber sent out an initial invitation in the spring to a group of businesses and organizations, including the tribal government, to be a part of what she calls a “strategic business group.” That group formed the core of the September forum, though Robbins concedes it wasn’t clear that the spring invitation to the group could lead to a forum-speaking position. 

“In my opinion, it was clear that it was an open forum,” Robbins says, “And an open forum would mean that like, if you’re interested [in presenting], let us know.”

She says many of the presenters asked to speak themselves, or were already part of the “strategic business group,” which meets once a month with the chamber. From that group, the forum event “built itself,” she says. 

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Robbins admits – she says it was the first time she’d ever organized an event like the September forum. “I was just trying to start a conversation and do something good for the community, and it kind of backfired a little.”

Tribal administrator Reese isn’t a part of the business group, but says at least one tribal council member attended initial meetings of the group. Reese says the event was not only exclusionary but was further soured by the racist remarks of one of its presenters. 

California businessman Jim Freeman, who works in the upper administration of restaurant chain Jimboy’s Tacos, presented four hours into the event, when many attendees had already left. Robbins, the event organizer, was also out of the room. Freeman says he’s been in and out of the community since the 1980s, and owns property here. He repeatedly invoked the “Wild West” when referring to Wrangell and the need to encourage younger investment.

Speaking of the need for community solutions, Freeman introduced the thought: “We can live where we are, we can stay being cowboys and Indians and independent and slowly shrivel as the population dies away…”

Reese says she was taken aback when she heard Freeman’s stereotyping language. 

“It was just so disturbing to experience racism on the land of the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan,” Reese says, “And with tribal members present.”

Freeman declined a request for a follow-up interview. 

After his presentation, when audience member Valerie Massie asked Freeman to change his terminology, he was verbally combative.

“Do you know I’m talking to you?” Massie asked, as Freeman walked out the door of the meeting room.

“Yes ma’am,” he responded, stopping in the doorway. 

“I think during your speech, you said ‘We can continue to go along like cowboys and Indians,’” Massie said. “Please remove that from your vocabulary.”

“I’m sorry,” Freeman said, “You know what, that’s an old term. It has nothing to do with any ethnicity so no, I probably will not.”

“It really does–” Massie responded.

Freeman then began to insist Massie explain to him what the term means. 

Massie declined to engage further, instead pointing out that the event was held on September 30 – Orange Shirt Day, a day of remembrance for victims and survivors of Native American boarding schools. She said the lack of tribal representation at the forum reflected a more systemic issue. 

“I think that there’s a lot of good ideas that have been spoken about today,” Massie said, standing at the back of the room, “But one of the reasons why some progress is not made – not all, some things – is because there’s been a lot of hurt that’s been caused in the name of progress in this town and every other place in the U.S. within the last few hundred years. We’ve really got to be collaborative and make sure everybody’s in the room when we’re talking about how Wrangell can progress.”

Reese says language like what Freeman used and the lack of accountability have an impact. 

“Language like this is the result of centuries of racism,” Reese says, “And it continues to perpetuate stereotypes that have real-life impacts on Native communities. I mean, if you think about it, here we are on the land of the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan and we are one of the five Southeast communities that are landless. We’re on a journey of reclamation for our people.”

Robbins says she does not approve of Freeman’s speech, and calls it “inappropriate.” She says she reached out to apologize to both Reese and Massie. But she has a friendly relationship with Freeman, who she says has offered help to the chamber on numerous occasions, although he is not a chamber member or financial supporter.

“I mean, my dad says things he shouldn’t say all the time,” Robbins says, “But I’m not going to cut ties with my dad either. If he had said something directly to someone, and it was awful, then it would maybe be a little different. I’m not really sure. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. And I don’t think he intended it to sound how it sounded. I think he’s just an older man who used the phrase, to be honest.”

She says she believes great things came from the forum, and she hopes people can focus on the push to find housing solutions, local investment opportunities and the like. Wrangell needs ideas.

She moved to the community in 1989, during a very different economic phase for the town. Robbins says she’d like to see a return to a more stable, booming economy. 

“I’d like to see it thrive,” Robbins says. “Right now, we’re surviving.”

For Reese, the forum was frustrating considering what it could have been – a data-driven, solutions-focused, inclusive opportunity for stakeholders throughout Wrangell to come up with real ideas for its economic future. That potential was overshadowed by a number of factors, including cultural insensitivity.

“My hope is that something positive can come from this unfortunate event,” Reese says. “I hope that in the future, the panels are more inclusive of all subsets of the community, that education on systematic racism can occur, and that positive change is made so we can move forward stronger as a community.”

She says the history of racism and exclusion of Alaska Native people isn’t ancient – It was mere decades ago when her grandfather was alive that businesses posted signs reading: “No dogs, no Indians.” 

Reese was recently elected to Wrangell’s school board and has indicated she hopes to use that position to help increase cultural education and strengthen the relationships between the tribe and the schools

“This makes me feel that much more energized to bring back our culture, to bring back the aspects of it that are so important to people, to continue the work that was done by my grandfather, and was done by our ancestors for our future generations,” Reese says. “It really motivates me out of love for the past and the future generations to come.”

Wrangell’s Chamber of Commerce doesn’t yet have another economic forum on the calendar. Robbins says she hopes forums can be facilitated by the borough, in the future. 

10/20: This article has been updated to clarify that Robbins was out of the room when Freeman made his remarks.

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