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Irene Sparks Rowan

Photo of Irene Sparks Rowan
Categories: 2012 Alumnae, Activist, Leadership, Native Issues


Irene Sparks Rowan, a Tlingit Indian from Klukwan, became a national figure during the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) struggle,  then returned to Alaska to form and lead her village corporation, Klukwan, Inc. In 1976, Rowan helped lead a world-wide campaign to encourage Alaska Natives to enroll under ANCSA, then returned to Washington, D.C., to work as a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Rowan’s mission began as a teenager when she taught a troop of Haines Boy Scouts how to Indian dance. The dancers, accompanied by a drum and bugle corps (Irene dancing and playing the bugle), became the well known Chilkat Dancers. Rowan credits this experience, at a time and in a place where Native values and traditional practices were not popular, as key to shaping her life: making her proud to be an Alaska Native and sharing those traditional values with non-Natives. Her early ability to innovate and lead shines through when the dancers, at the fiercely competitive international intertribal Indian Dance Ceremonial festival in New Mexico, were unexpectedly limited in their music. They then danced to the same chant, three times, but at different tempos, without the audience noticing. The Chilkat Dancers received the grand prize for their performance!

Rowan learned to walk in both worlds at an early age from her mother, Mildred Sparks, a Tlingit Indian from Klukwan. Sparks not only was a lifelong advocate for the Alaska Native people but was an English-speaker and acted as a bridge between cultures. As a teacher in Bethel in the 1960s, Rowan helped to elect the first Alaska Native to serve on the city council. She soon expanded her political interests to the national scene, helping to elect Mike Gravel to the Senate in 1968 and moving to Washington, D.C. Rowan then joined in the fight for the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971, one of the very few women so involved.

Upon returning to Alaska, Rowan was elected the president of Klukwan, Inc. in 1975 and immediately led a successful lobbying effort to amend  ANSCA twice: to recognize Klukwan, Inc. as a village corporation eligible for ANCSA benefits; and to allow selection of lands outside their original withdrawal area. As president and chief executive officer, it was then her task to lead the complicated and difficult efforts to establish the corporate structure and the process for land selection. In 1976 she joined forces with Susan Ruddy in a public information company which secured a contract to carry out a world-wide campaign to encourage Alaska Natives to enroll under ANCSA. In the late 1970s Rowan returned to Washington and worked as a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior to help sort out and resolve the myriad of questions and issues arising from implementation of ANSCA. Returning to Alaska, she continued her implementation work, this time with the Alaska Federation of Natives. She continued to serve many years on the Klukwan, Inc. board. Rowan maintains that her experience being the “face” of Klukwan, Inc. during its formative years has led her to prefer to operate “behind-the-scenes”. However, it is clear from her activities since that time that when needs are identified, Rowan steps forward to lead and initiate action.

Rowan started the Southcentral Native Educators Association while serving as an adjunct instructor of Alaska Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage. In 2001 she organized a diverse group of volunteers and organizations into the Alaska Native Heritage Month Committee to create ways to commemorate Native cultures during Alaska Native Heritage Month in November. When it appeared the 40th anniversary of ANCSA in 2011 would pass unnoticed, Rowan initiated, organized and chaired the “ANCSA@40” committee.  This group created a year-long program of drums and lectures, including collecting documents and photographs, to celebrate and honor the efforts of those who fought for ANCSA and to educate those unfamiliar with the struggle. She then arranged for the video tapes and still photos from these events to be archived for the use of future generations.

Outside of her role in Alaska Native affairs, Rowan has broad interests in the larger community. As a businesswoman, Rowan has served on the board of Northrim BanCorp (formerly Northrim Bank) since 1991. As a member of Sisters in Crime, the mystery writer organization, she helped organize an “Authors in the Schools” program and a GCI video conferencing program of Alaska Native authors to encourage young rural students to record their stories. She currently serves on the board of Alaska Moving Images Preservation Association. Rowan cites her selection in 1991 by Freedom House to be an election observer in El Salvador as one of her most valuable experiences.  She traveled for a week in that war-torn ountry with a delegation of individuals from throughout the world known as Freedom Fighters. Rowan said her most enjoyable achievement in life has been to raise two daughters.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech