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ONC has a new executive director. Here’s his vision for the future

Brian Henry city council
Christine Trudeau

Brian Henry's vision as the new executive director of Orutsararmiut Native Council (ONC) revolves around two big and connected ideas: uplifting his community and leveraging their voice to influence change.

“I look at the needs of our Indigenous Aboriginal people within our region, the socioeconomic conditions and the challenges we have,” Henry said. “My goal and aim is to leave this organization better than where I had taken it on.”

Originally from Akiachak, Henry isn’t an ONC tribal member. Before joining the organization, he was the president and CEO of Akiachak Limited, Akiachak’s village corporation. He later served a four-month stint on Bethel City Council after being appointed to finish an outgoing council member’s term. Over the years he’s held many positions with the Bethel tribe. He started at ONC as a circle facilitator, then worked as a tribal court administrator, and most recently as the self-governance director. After working his way through the ranks, Henry thinks that his experiences and cultural background have prepared him for the position, which he took over 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.”

ONC is the largest tribe in the region, a powerful voice potentially growing stronger with the political rise of Mary Peltola, an ONC tribal member and a former tribal court judge. Peltola grew up in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta and is now a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. In part due to ONC’s size, Henry believes that the organization is in a unique position to wield political power.

“I think ONC is at the apex of that tribal movement. Their voice carries weight and I believe ONC has political clout,” Henry said.

That political clout is currently being used to oppose the proposed Donlin Gold mine near Crooked Creek, upriver of Bethel. The mine is a controversial project that ONC said could undermine the health of the Kuskokwim River and its subsistence resources. Although Donlin has maintained that it would build the mine safely, 35 tribal delegates passed a resolution opposing the gold mine at the annual Association of Village Council Presidents 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 that ONC’s opposition will continue under his leadership.

“Yes we do oppose it. We will continue to fight it and do what we can to ensure that the protection of our way of life is first and foremost,” Henry said.

Beyond fighting the mine’s development, Henry plans to advocate for more tribal co-management of fisheries with the state and federal government. He wants tribes to have increased control over assessing the Kuskokwim River salmon runs. The Native Village of Napaimute receives grant funding from the federal government to operate the Aniak test fishery
upriver, but the state of Alaska runs Bethel’s. Test fisheries are a method of using driftnets to determine the abundance and species of salmon in the river.

“I think tribes up and down the river should be able to do that test fishing, not just in one location in one spot per tide schedule. Then we'd have an actual and more clear picture of how much fish are moving through,” Henry said. “We are able to manage fisheries if given the opportunity. Right now it’s up to the state and federal government to grant us that.”

To achieve these goals, Henry believes that it will take partnership between all the tribes of the Y-K Delta. That partnership is at the core of Henry’s vision for ONC.

“The Yup’ik people, in my understanding, are one: the Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and the Athabascan of our area,” Henry said. “And to see their needs and conditions sometimes compel us to fight forward and to take on positions that might be challenging, but we do have our heart in the right place.”

Corrected: July 19, 2022 at 3:37 PM AKDT
A previous version of this story stated that the Native Village of Napaimute contracted with the federal government to run the Aniak test fishery. In fact, they receive grant funding from the federal government.
Will McCarthy is a temporary news reporter at KYUK. Previously, he worked as a furniture mover, producer, and freelance journalist. Will's written for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Texas Monthly. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.