Damon Schaeffer

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Damon Schaeffer, the senior director of lands and facilities, recently received the Hunter Award, given in recognition of an employee who goes above and beyond to help the group succeed.

Where is your family from?

My parents are Leo Schaeffer Jr. of Kotzebue and Roberta (Bernhardt) Jackson of Kobuk.

My aana (grandmother) was May Bernhardt, who was adopted by Mable and Harry Brown. [Back in the early days, Harry Brown set up a trading post in Kobuk. He hauled supplies up and down the Kobuk River, using his own boat. He minted his own trading coins.]

May married Tony, a big-time bush pilot from Teller, near Nome. [During the gold rush, Teller was a boomtown.]

What is your Iñupiaq name?

Milligraq. I was named after my grandfather, Tony.

Where did you grow up?

I was the second of 13. With so many kids, I spent a lot of time with my Elders. I couldn’t have asked for a better upbringing.

In Kotzebue, I stayed with my aana and taata (grandparents), Helen and Leo Schaeffer Sr. I spent Christmases and summers with Aana May in Kobuk. There was no running water or sewer; we packed water and hauled wood.

Where did you study or train?

I went to elementary school in Anchorage and high school in Kotzebue. After high school I went to University of Alaska Anchorage to study construction management.   

Much of my training has been on-the-job. I worked for and have been mentored by many people and, with their guidance, I have acquired skills.

Tata Leo instilled the meaning of hard work in me. He retired from the FAA. He was known for his great strength. He did a lot of work around camp, and I was his laborer. He taught me how to swing a hammer, how to properly use tools, how to think a project through. He also taught me to never expect anything for my work other than the satisfaction that I accomplished what I set out to do.

What was your first job?

In Kotzebue, I worked at the culture camp, doing show-and-tells for tourists. When I was 14, I worked for Tour Arctic [a former NANA company] as a bus washer, a job no one else wanted to do. When I was old enough, I got my CDL [commercial driver’s license] and drove the smaller vans around Kotzebue.

The summer I was 16, my Uncle Warren hired me as a laborer. There were fewer regulations back then.

Who encouraged you to work for NANA?

My mother-in-law, Gladys Pungowiyi, saw a job posted that she thought I’d be good for: a village construction projects manager.

I’d been working as a project manager for the Northwest Iñupiat Housing Authority. It was a hands-on job and a big concern is how much a home costs its owners to heat and maintain. So when I interviewed for the NANA job, I asked what the buildings would cost to own and operate after the construction is complete.

What is your job now?

In five years, I’ve had five jobs and five supervisors (in two locations). I started as the construction manager in Kotzebue. Then I became a project manager, a senior manager of facilities, the director of facilities and, now, senior director of lands and facilities.

I act as a property manager for our Kotzebue headquarters and the village offices. I also support Kotzebue Properties.

I enjoy project management and working with people. NANA has given me opportunity to do this type of work and I am appreciative of the team of people I work with.

Who has inspired you?

My Aana May taught me to respect Elders, respect all people. She had a natural ability to help people. From her, I learned about our culture—and hunting. She shared many stories of her childhood and her hunting skills.  Starting when she was young, she and her girlfriends used to hunt with 30-30s [rifles].  She would always say, with a smile, that she was a crack shot. Her storytelling and her excitement drove my ambition to learn how to hunt and practice our traditions.  

Did you grow up hunting?

I didn’t shoot my first caribou until I was 18. (By then, Leo and Helen were old.)

I went hunting with my father-in-law, Caleb Pungowiyi. He knew how to live off the land and water. He was born at camp on St. Lawrence Island. He knew what he was doing and had a quiet confidence. I was there to learn—and to help pack anything out.

He told me he thought I was lucky; he enjoyed hunting with me. I attribute our successes to his traditional knowledge.

What is your favorite time of year?

Fall, not only because it’s hunting season. The mosquitoes are gone. The temperature’s comfortable. The beauty of our land is in full force. The trees are bright red, yellow and orange.

Fall is a time when many people are out with their families—hunting, harvesting, and gathering. I enjoy running into others on the river and visiting with family and friends.

What do you like best about your job?

When I have the opportunity, I like to travel to villages, to visit with people and to be outdoors. I oversee NANA’s Trespass Program which protects our lands and resources. I work with our trespass officers so that they have what they need, and I work with the subsistence committees for the Red Dog Mine and the Upper Kobuk Minerals Project.

I like collaborating with different groups to solve common issues. Part of my job is to advocate on behalf of subsistence issues. We partner with the park service, Department of Fish and Game, Fish and Wildlife Service, Maniilaq, BLM, the state troopers, the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and the Kiana Elders’ Council.

What advice do you have for young shareholders?

Keep educating yourself. Keep learning. Reach out to your Elders for their knowledge, support and encouragement. I’m trying to learn Iñupiaq to communicate with more Elders.

What has surprised you about NANA?

The range and level of involvement the corporation has is huge—in mining, business, government—from local to global.

I like the diverse mix of people. Everyone has something to offer. We work really well together.

What important lessons have you learned?

Aana May told me not be nervous about trying new things. She’d say, once you do it, you’ll wonder what took you so long.

Chuck Greene, one of my first supervisors at NANA, helped me with my fear of public speaking. He told me to be prepared, go in and say what you need to say, be respectful and listen to comments. You have to put armor on and take criticism without taking it personally.

Do you and Shayne have kids?

Yes, we have four. I was one of 13 and she was one of nine, but we weren’t going for any records ourselves.

We have a big extended family. My kids will have to be crazy careful who they have crushes on. [laughing]

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Damon Schaeffer was interviewed by Carol Richards, director of brand communications for NANA.

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