Q & A with Shareholder Employees

A Conversation with Hilda Haas, Senior HR Director for NANA Development Corporation 

This is part of a series of interviews with NANA’s shareholder-employees.

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Hilda Haas, a NANA shareholder originally from Shungank, is the senior human resources director for NANA Development Corporation, in Anchorage. Photo by Brian Adams, a NANA shareholder.

 

What is your Iñupiaq name? 

Narvauġauraq. I was named after my dad’s aanaruaq, my great-grandmother.

What is your job?

As the senior director of shareholder development in the human resources department of NANA Development Corporation, my job is to help interested shareholders build their career development plan. I work with them for their own success, and for the shared success of our company. I also ensure that managers and supervisors play a crucial role.

How many years have you been with NANA?

I’m in my 34th year. I started in October of 1981.

Where were you before you came to work for NANA?

From 1970-1981, I lived in Washington D.C. and worked for Senator Mike Gravel (who represented Alaska from 1969-1981). Lynda Hadley, who was born in Deering, had that administrative position before me. When Senator Gravel was succeeded by Senator Frank Murkowski, I stayed on for another year before moving back to Alaska.

What was it like being in D.C. then?

It was an exciting time. The land claims were being settled. While I was often homesick, I met so many people from home. Only a handful of Alaska Natives were bilingual, fluent in their Native tongue and English. Of those, not many traveled (outside the villages). So, those who came to D.C. had an important role to play in fighting for our aboriginal rights.

They came together from all over Alaska. Some of these men and women were: Willie Hensley (from Kotzebue); Robert Newlin, Sr. (from Noorvik); Oliver Leavitt (from Barrow); Laura Bergt (originally from Kotzebue), Brenda Itta (from Barrow), Mary Jane Fate (from Fairbanks), and Marlene Johnson (from Juneau). Tom Richards, Jr. (originally from Kotzebue) was there for the Tundra Times, reporting back to Alaska on Native issues.

These were powerful voices. People—like Etok Edwardsen (from Barrow)—were fierce defenders. Etok, and some of the others I mentioned, truly walked in two worlds. At home, they lived a traditional lifestyle, and spoke their Native language. Out in the world, they were well-spoken in English. And, at that time (the early 1970s), only a fraction of our people were college-educated.

Back then, no one had any money. They shared hotel rooms or slept on couches when they came to lobby, but they knew the good restaurants, where to be seen. It was a contrast from Marlene Johnson’s stories of growing up in Juneau. In the 1940s and ‘50s, there were signs in the restaurants and bars that said, "No Indians or dogs allowed.”

What was your first job at NANA?

In 1981, I started with NANA as the executive assistant to the president, senior executives, and our board. I worked simultaneously for NANA Regional Corporation, NANA Development Corporation, and United Bank Alaska.

In the early 1980s, I traveled with the NANA board to meet with Elders in the region. These meetings were held to define Iñupiat Iļiqtusiat, which is what makes us who we are. This movement helped us articulate our values, our way of life, our ways of knowing. After being away from home for 10 years, and not hearing much Iñupiaq, it was powerful to be back, to speak our language.

As a child, I had to learn to speak English in order to go to school. At home, we’d watch movies and talk back to the screen in Iñupiaq. If we were startled, we’d yell, “Aachikkaaŋ!” (I’m scared!) Or, “Tavra!” (There!) My parents said they learned English by listening to us children talk.

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Shungnak, on the upper Kobuk River. My parents are Wesley Woods, who passed on in 2003, and Josephine Custer Woods, who will be 87 on April 3. My dad was quiet by nature, but we were a fun-loving family.

We spent a lot of time at fish camps, upriver and downriver, depending on the season and what fish were running. We supplemented our subsistence food with things we grew in our gardens.

What is your favorite memory of your father?

My dad was a captain on a tugboat. When a shipment came, I remember that first scent of an apple, orange or grapefruit. They were so fresh, you could stick a straw in the fruit and suck the juice out.

Dad was also a gardener. He grew all our vegetables: lettuce, cabbage, turnips, peas, radishes, potatoes, and cucumbers. The vegetables were sweet; just like eating fruit. In summer, he would garden all day long, and I would help. No playing for me. On those days, we wouldn’t even stop to eat. We had a cellar below our house, so the produce would stay fresh through the winter, even in December.

Where did you study or train?

At 14, I left home to go to high school at Nome Beltz. I stayed in Nome during the school year, and spent summers back home, at our summer camp. I finished in three years, but stayed in Nome another year to graduate with my classmates.

After high school, I attended Haskell Indian Junior College in Lawrence, Kansas, where I obtained an associate degree in business. 

I went on to study business administration at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; but I was always working, and I found it hard to work full-time while going to school.

What was your first job?

In Nome, while in high school, I worked half days at the Bank of the North. This was pre-computers, when everything was done manually. I alphabetized checks while listening to basketball games on the radio. I didn’t have a favorite player, but I carefully followed Wilt Chamberlin and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Who has inspired you?

Over the years, I’ve had many mentors who have helped me grow. From my parents, I learned to be true to myself. From my father, I learned a good work ethic. Robert Newlin, Sr. was a good coach for me. He always encouraged me. He’d say, “Stay with the job, we need leaders.” Many other NANA leaders taught me about NANA and how it was formed. From them , I learned to be patient and not to react to negativity. They showed humility, dignity. Restraint and respect.

 What has surprised you most about working at NANA?

I’ve been here a long time, but I don’t often look back. I always look forward. There have been so many changes, but I never stop and say, “Remember when?” Still, I miss the people who are no longer with us. I miss being around them, talking to them. I think about Robert Newlin and the first time he got a cell phone. It makes me smile.

What are your main job responsibilities now?

Recently I transferred to NANA Development Corporation after 15 years with NANA Management Services.  I work very closely with shareholders that are interested to better their job skills, advancement and go into leadership role. Also, I mentor shareholders who are seeking job opportunities. I know how to talk to shareholders. I’ve learned to listen without interrupting and without judgement, to let them tell their story, to not fill in the blanks. On the administrative side, I need to know regulations, mandates, and requirements.

What are your strongest beliefs about what you do?

I believe in our values, that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. Keep the personal out of it.

What do you like best about your job?

We’re passionate about our employees. We want them to be successful. We give them opportunities. I tell our shareholders, what’s next is all up to you.

What advice do you have for young shareholders?

Ask questions. Learn how to interview. Learn how to listen. Prepare. Don’t get discouraged, get experience. If you apply for a job you’re not qualified for, you’ll get frustrated. Look for something you can do now. You need to start somewhere. Then, work your way up.  This takes time, effort and patience.  I am still waiting to have the opportunity after 34 years, I don’t give up. 

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

Some people are surprised that I’m bilingual. Even though I’ve lived in large cities, I am fluently in Iñupiaq as it was my first language.

Today, when you ride up the elevator in our NANA building in Anchorage, the floor numbers are announced in Iñupiaq. People from our region ask, “Whose voice is that?” It’s mine. It was an honor to bring this element of our culture to our new building.

Where do you hope to be in five years?

I don’t talk about retiring. I talk about going forward. We’re living in the 21st Century. I’m good with change and will continue to contribute my knowledge and how I learned and endured changes to stay on the job for 34 years.  It is tough, but I love challenge.

What is your vision of NANA in 10 or 20 years?

We’ll be a shareholder-managed company. It’s happening. Having our shareholders working, at all levels, is always the goal.

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Hilda Haas was interviewed by Carol Richards, Director of Brand Communications for NANA Development Corporation.