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Hill Climbers: Alaskan Is Begich’s Eyes and Ears

As a child growing up in rural Alaska, Agatha Erickson always wanted to make a difference in the native community. As a rural liaison in the office of the state’s Democratic Senator, Mark Begich, she now has that opportunity.

“I always knew that I wanted to work for Alaska in some capacity,” she said in an interview with Roll Call. “I wanted to use my education and skills to make Alaska better, specifically rural Alaska and the native community there.”

Erickson, like her mother, Susan, is a native Koyukon Athabascan and member of the Kaltag tribe. Although originally from Fairbanks, Erickson, 25, grew up in several rural areas, including the island community of Hoonah, west of Juneau in southeastern Alaska. 

It was sometimes an isolating experience.

“In a rural-based community, you basically have to take a plane or boat to get anywhere in Alaska if you’re off the road system,” she said.

But for Erickson, what Hoonah — with a population of about 700 — lacked in size, it made up for in community. “At Hoonah High School we all knew each other and grew up together,” she said. “The sense of community is wonderful, and the people are really supportive of each other.”

Erickson went from rural Alaska and a graduating class of 15 to the Ivy League, attending Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. There she became involved in the school’s native community while developing practical skills as a Dartmouth Rockefeller Leadership Fellow.

Through her coursework, she began to realize how unique her upbringing was and how it would eventually lead to the work she does now.

“My professors really made me think about who I was and what I can do with this great opportunity of going to an Ivy League school to effect change in a positive way for my home community,” she said. 

After graduating with honors in June 2009 with a bachelor’s of arts in Native American studies, Erickson returned to Alaska to work as communications director for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal consortium of the 42 villages of Alaska’s interior tribes.

“I went from thinking and living in an academic world to actually being in the middle of all these laws and policies that affect Alaska Natives,” she said. “It really forced me to sort of see things in a different way.” 

Erickson became an advocate for Alaska Natives in various organizations, including the Urban and Rural Affairs Committee and the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.

In January, she joined Begich’s office as rural liaison, primarily working out of Anchorage. “I travel extensively throughout rural Alaska to be his eyes and ears on the ground, to hear what people in the villages want and need, the concerns that they have and to really reach out to people,” Erickson said. 

She expressed interest in running for public office down the line.

“My parents, grandparents and community live in rural Alaska,” she said. “So it’s very personal for me to help make people’s lives better in these areas.”

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