By Melinda Munson
Sara Kinjo-Hischer, tribal administrator for Skagway Traditional Council (STC), a federally recognized tribal government, was named 2021 Tribal Administrator of the Year.
The designation was bestowed by the Alaska Tribal Administrators Association, which started awarding the distinction in 2018.
“Sara is a steward of truth, justice, hard-work, teamwork, community health, education and welfare,” her nomination form stated. “She is of strong moral character and ethics. And she is dedicated to working towards goals that embody the best interests of Skagway Traditional Council, its members and the interests of Indigenous peoples on a global level.”
For Kinjo-Hischer, who describes herself as an introvert, the award was a surprise.
“It was completely shocking,” she said. “I’m honored. There are a lot of tribal administrators out there that deserve this.”
STC president Jaime Bricker thinks Kinjo-Hischer is more than deserving.
“Sara is special in a lot of ways,” Bricker said.
In 2014, when Kinjo-Hischer was hired by STC, the council was reeling. Their former tribal administrator, Delia Commander, embezzled nearly $300,000 from Skagway Village. The investigation and sentencing wouldn’t be complete until 2018.
“We had been through a pretty traumatic experience with a previous administrator … we were having a hard time finding someone who would commit,” Bricker said.
According to Bricker, Kinjo-Hischer committed with zeal. Some of her first actions were to put financial protections in place. She then began the task of repairing relationships.
Since Kinjo-Hischer’s tenure, STC has forged partnerships with Skagway School, the municipality, National Park Service, Dahl Memorial Clinic, Skagway Economic Development Corp., SEARHC and tribal organizations throughout the state and country.
Kinjo-Hischer recently instituted electronic ballots, making the last STC election the most successful in terms of participation. In the past, the membership relied on mailed ballots which were less efficient since many members live outside of Skagway.
Kinjo-Hischer is also focused on cultural education.
“She’s constantly bringing opportunities to the table,” Bricker said, describing a gut sewing class she participated in via Zoom, per Kinjo-Hischer’s recommendation.
While all of Kinjo-Hischer’s work benefits the over 100 enrolled members of STC, many of the programs help the entire community of Skagway. Salmon in the Classroom, twice-weekly Covid-19 testing at no cost, co-sponsoring mental first aid classes, distributing free FDA food boxes, air quality testing and invasive species clean-up are just a sampling of the long list that Kinjo-Hischer oversees.
Kinjo-Hischer says her favorite part of the job is “constant learning.” Explaining precisely what a tribal administrator does can be tricky. This year’s winner describes it as a cross between a social worker, grant writer, chief financial officer and many other positions, including a janitor.
“Sometimes I’m cleaning the gutters in the summer,” Kinjo-Hischer said.
Kinjo-Hischer is not a tribal member. Her family comes from Okinawa, Japan, a place that had canoes, traditional dancing and its own language.
“Our kingdom was taken away,” Kinjo-Hischer stated, describing Japanese oppression of the Okinawan culture.
“Obviously it’s not the same,” Kinjo-Hischer said, but thinks the parallels help her better comprehend Alaska Native culture.
“It was easier for me to understand the feeling of losing that,” she said.
The tribal administrator of the year has the opportunity to be featured in a short documentary. Kinjo-Hischer isn’t so sure she wants to be in front of the camera.
“I’m debating,” she said.
To view the last two winners, visit the Alaska Tribal Administrators Association webpage at https://www.aktaa.org. The Diomede documentary was nominated for an Emmy in 2020.
Kinjo-Hishcer is grateful to her council, and staff.
“I’m sharing this with all of them,” she said.