The ONC has a new general manager. Here is his vision of the future
Brian Henry’s vision as the new Executive Director of the Orutsararmiut Native Council (ONC) revolves around two big, interrelated ideas: elevating his community and leveraging their voice to influence change.
“I look at the needs of our indigenous people in our region, the socio-economic conditions and the challenges we face,” said Henry. “My goal and my objective is to leave this organization better than where I took it.”
Originally from Akiachak, Henry is not a member of the ONC tribe. Prior to joining the organization, he was President and CEO of Akiachak Limited, Akiachak’s village corporation. Later, he served for four months on the Bethel City Council after being appointed complete the term of an outgoing board member. Over the years, he held many positions within the Bethel Tribe. He started at ONC as a Circle Facilitator, then worked as a Tribal Court Administrator and most recently as a Director of Self-Government. After rising through the ranks, Henry believes his experiences and cultural background prepared him for the position, which he took on July 1.
“I grew up in this area,” Henry said. “I’ve seen the changes over the years and I’ve seen our tribal movement grow.”
The ONC is the largest tribe in the region, a powerful voice that could grow stronger with the political rise of ONC tribesman and former tribal court judge Mary Peltola. Peltola grew up in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (YK) delta and is now a candidate for the United States House of Representatives. Partly because of the ONC’s size, Henry believes the organization is in a unique position to wield political power.
“I think the ONC is at the top of this tribal movement. Their voice carries weight and I believe the ONC carries political weight,” Henry said.
This political clout is currently being used to oppose the proposed Donlin gold mine near Crooked Creek, upstream from Bethel. The mine is a controversial project which the ONC says could harm the health of the Kuskokwim River and its livelihood resources. Although Donlin maintained that she would construct the mine safely, 35 tribal delegates passed a resolution opposing the gold mine at the Association of Village Council Chairpersons’ annual convention in 2019. ONC board members led the opposition. The tribe has also filed a series of lawsuits to try to block permits for the project, and Henry said ONC opposition will continue under his watch.
“Yes, we oppose it. We will continue to fight it and do everything we can to ensure that protecting our way of life comes first,” Henry said.
Beyond fighting the development of the mine, Henry plans to advocate for more tribal co-management of fisheries with the state and federal government. He wants the tribes to have more control over the assessment of Kuskokwim River salmon runs. The Napaimute Native Village contracts with the federal government to operate the Aniak test fishery upstream, but the state of Alaska operates the Bethel fishery. Test fishing is a method of using driftnets to determine the abundance and species of salmon in the river.
“I think the tribes up and down the river should be able to do this test fishing, not just one spot at one spot per tide schedule. Then we would have a real, clearer picture of how much fish are moving around,” Henry said. “We are able to manage the fishery if we have the opportunity. Right now it’s up to the state and the federal government to give us that.
To achieve these goals, Henry believes it will take a partnership among all of the tribes in the Yukon Delta. This partnership is central to Henry’s vision for ONC.
“The Yup’ik people, in my view, are one: the Yup’ik, the Cup’ik and the Athabascan of our region,” said Henry. “And seeing their needs and their conditions sometimes forces us to fight and take positions that might be difficult, but we have our hearts in the right place.”