Part Four – Byron Mallott
By Sam Low
On the same day that he came out of the forest, troubled by complex feelings and unable to give the order to cut the trees, Nainoa flew to Juneau to meet with Byron Mallott, the CEO of Sealaska Corporation and a colleague of Judson Brown.
“I flew to Juneau,” Nainoa recalls. “I stayed in an old hotel on the slopes of a mountain overlooking the city. The room was dimly lit, and I called home that night. I was troubled. I don’t remember what I said. The next morning, I had an early lunch with Byron.”
“Byron was a quiet man,” Nainoa continues. “He was dressed in a plaid long sleeve shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. He appeared to be intense – a lot of things were on his mind. He understood what our project was about – otherwise he would not have supported it. He knew there was a risk. He was responsible to his shareholders. Byron told me he was born in a village called Yakutat, another cannery town. His mom was pure native Alaskan and his dad was a non-native from the West Coast of the U.S. Later I learned that he was on just about every single board there was to be on. He was head of The Nature Conservancy. He was made CEO of Sealaska at age 34 – all these huge accomplishments. But he had not even finished college because had to take care of his dad when he got sick.”
Ironically, Nainoa and Byron had both appeared in separate National Geographic Magazine articles in 1976 – though they were not aware of it at the time. Nainoa was featured as a young sailor aboard Hokule’a and Byron as an Alaskan firebrand looking out for the rights of his people.
“I learned that there is a very powerful drive in Byron that you would not normally see because he is so quiet. It is inside of him. As a child he saw the pain of what happened to his people, the abuse of his people, the alcoholism, the spouse and child abuse that went on in families in the villages. And he really wanted to make a change, so he stood up and took a stand. He was very young, in his late twenties, but he was very vocal about his beliefs.”
“Byron told me about one of the most important turning points in his life,” Nainoa continues. “It happened at a meeting when the governor of Alaska stepped forward and said, ‘OK, Mr. Mallott, you have all these accusations about how bad we are treating your community. But how do you know?'”
“Byron said, ‘What do you mean – how do I know?'”
“‘There are many separate communities all through Alaska, have you been to all of them?'” the governor asked him.
“Byron said, ‘No.'”
“‘Well then,’ the governor told him, ‘you ought to go see them.'”
“So the Governor sponsored Byron as part of his staff to visit every single community in Alaska for two years,” Nainoa explains. “That was an enormous turning point. He was sent to all these communities to observe and learn. Alaska is huge, very diverse – there are Eskimos and Athapaskans and Aleuts, Tlingits, and Haidas – many tribes. That two years of traveling really opened Byron’s eyes.”
“When we first met,” Nainoa continues, “I wasn’t prepared to share what I was thinking and feeling because I wasn’t sure what it was. Here’s the man that’s giving us the trees. I had never met him before. And he’s quiet, too. I am the kind of person that, if I don’t know you, I’m not going to say anything unless you ask me. That’s my nature. I didn’t know Byron. Byron didn’t know me. Maybe he was expecting me to ask him about the trees and since I didn’t there wasn’t much to talk about. That’s my guess. We had a very quiet lunch. He asked me what I felt about Alaska and that’s all that I remember about the conversation. We didn’t even talk specifically about the trees.”
A few days later, still troubled by his confused reaction to cutting down the trees, Nainoa flew back to Hawaii.