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A conversation with the new BIA Alaska Regional Director, Jolene John

Jolene John is the new Alaska Regional Director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
BIA Alaska
Jolene John is the new Alaska Regional Director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The new regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Alaska comes from Toksook Bay (Nunakauyaq) on the western coast.

Jolene Arnaqulluk John started as the BIA’s new regional Alaska director in late November. She previously served as the Tribal Operations Officer for the BIA Alaska region from 2016 to 2020. In 2020, she served as the acting deputy regional director for Native Services, where she worked to organize an interagency working group to share information from Alaska tribes about the COVID-19 pandemic. Most recently, John was deputy administrator for the Alaska Office of Native American Programs with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Her new position is a powerful one, serving as a representative of Alaska in dealing with federal agencies and outside tribal governments and organizations, as well as working to strengthen tribal government and self-determination for the more than 180,000 tribal members and 228 of the 229 federally-recognized tribes within the state. Metlakatla is the sole exception; it is under the BIA Northwest office.

The BIA Alaska regional director position was most recently held by the late Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr., who died in a plane crash earlier this year. Peltola Jr. retired from the position in 2022 during his wife Mary Sattler Peltola’s run for U.S. Congress.

KYUK’s Sage Smiley spoke with John about her goals as she steps into a new role.

Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity and flow. 

KYUK (Sage Smiley): Thank you so much for taking some time to speak with KYUK today. Could we start out by hearing a bit about you?

Jolene Arnqulluk John: Definitely. Wiinga, Arnaqullugua. Nunakauyarmiunek kingunengqertua. Aataka Kangrilngullruuq, aanaka-wa Anguyaluk. My name is Jolene John, Yup’ik name is Arnaqulluk. I originate from Nelson Island (Nunakauyaq). I am a Nunakauyarmiut tribal member. And my late father, Kangrilnguq Paul John, was the late traditional chief of the region. And my mother is Martina John from Toksook Bay.

KYUK: Thank you so much. How did you make your way from your home to the BIA Alaska directorship? Tell us about your path to this new position.

John: Well, I grew up in Toksook Bay, attended Nelson Island High School. And during my time there, I had wonderful teachers who urged me to participate in leadership programs. Therefore, early in high school, I even served a year with the Alaska Federation of Natives being the youth representative for the entire [Yukon-Kuskokwim] Delta. And so that was a foundation that got me on to other programs and into college. I attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a rural development major, which allowed me to study ways of engaging in the community. I worked as a tribal administrator for my tribe in Toksook Bay, as well as the health administrator for other tribes. At one point, I also worked as a tribal liaison for the state of Alaska. And there's so many other projects I was engaged in that allows me to feel like I'm well-rounded in knowing and understanding what's in a rural community or a tribal community.

KYUK: Definitely, I think some of that speaks to your answer to this next question. But what made you want to be the BIA Alaska director? What motivated you to go for this position of leadership?

John: The biggest person I would identify as my late father, Kangrilnguq Paul John. As I said before, he was the traditional chief. And growing up, I saw his work and how he prioritized the tribes, and saw the passion he had about tribal sovereignty, their rights and tribal values. Through his mentorship, he would help me understand how to make decisions based on the need of a community as a whole and not just yourself as an individual. Had me be considerate of the entire population, showed us and taught us the traditional values of kenka, love, and not to be so disengaged from the real people who may be struggling and to understand them. I've always had high regard for tribes and tribal organizations. I want them to be successful in managing their own governance. I have always been drawn to work for the tribes, no matter the position or the workplace, because it's always felt like home to me.

KYUK: You are new in the position, so I'm sure there's a lot that you're learning. But are there any specific motivating issues or projects that you are finding are especially salient or things that you're thinking you want to focus on in your beginning days as the new BIA Alaska director?

John: Well, I definitely have some goals in mind. Well, first one is I know federally-recognized tribes require their funding in order to deliver programs and services. So my goal is to ensure that those funds get out the door as quickly as possible, and increase funding for programs and services that have historically had low numbers for Alaska's tribes and include things like the small and needy tribal funding. I've also been engaged in initiatives regarding climate change and how it's impacting a lot of our communities. Anytime there's emergencies, I want to collaborate across different organizations, federal, state or private, and ensure that BIA is at the table where needed.

KYUK: Are there areas of BIA oversight, I mean, you mentioned emergency management, for example. Are there areas that BIA has oversight over that you're especially concerned about or that are top of mind at the moment?

John: One of the priorities for the Bureau of Indian Affairs is land into trust. And I know that there's been some applications submitted by our Alaska tribes. I'll be ensuring that we prioritize that in the process. We also have a number of vacant positions that require a higher level of specialized certification. I would like to ensure that we fill those vacancies so that we can increase our level of support and technical assistance, as well as increasing our support to the TIBC (Tribal-Interior Budget Council) representatives of Alaska. I know that staff rely on our TIBC representatives to bring their concerns at the national level, that way they can have the information needed to help address problematic areas related to funding.

KYUK: So how would you characterize the relationship between the BIA and tribes in Alaska right now?

John: We want to be able to build a culture of being good neighbors, good relatives, and be responsive where there's a need. And be as helpful as we can by addressing the staff shortages that we have and improving communication. I want to build BIA’s relationships with tribes to be proactive service providers, and for our tribal leadership to be better listeners and understand their needs and be of service where we are needed as well.

KYUK: Do you feel like the relationship between the BIA Alaska office and tribes has been changing at all?

John: Well, of course it's going to evolve over time. There's always areas where we're constantly working behind the scenes to see how we can improve services or programs, because tribes themselves are ever-changing. Not one tribe is built the same or designed the same. And so we have to understand where they're at in order to build programs and services that make sense for today's needs. Tribes of years past are not anything like tribes of today, nor will they be the same tomorrow.

KYUK: Your position was most recently held by [the late] Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola [Jr.]. I'm wondering if you had a relationship with him, and if so, if there's anything you'd want to speak to in that relationship, or if there are aspects of his legacy or his work at BIA Alaska that you're hoping to carry on.

JOHN: Okay, so I may have, you know, been observing from a distance and overall legacy that you're referring to, I cannot speak of details. But as far as him and myself, our fathers, my late father and his father, Gene Peltola Sr., worked many years together in the health administration. And of course, naturally, we hung around our parents, and would cross paths that way. We happen to be attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks as students at the same time. And we were among the first United National Indian Tribal Youth Earth Ambassadors in the 1990s. And so, of course, we sort of grew up doing similar things. However, in my last year here, I worked for him as the Acting Deputy Regional Director of Native Services under his realm. And during that time, it was a period of dispersing important CARES Act funding and conducting tribal calls statewide to support their COVID-19 response. I do know and fondly remember Buzzy as being a very friendly individual that always enjoyed visiting with tribes and being in the community, and I intend to do the same.

KYUK: Thank you. So to wrap things up, is there anything else you'd either want people to know about what you hope to do with this position or [about] yourself that you think are important for the listening public, the people you will be serving here in Alaska and the tribes you'll be serving in Alaska? Anything that you should think that they should know that we haven't touched on already?

John: Well first and foremost, like the tribal community, I want our staff at the Bureau of Indian Affairs Alaska Region to have a culture of being good neighbor. Being good relatives and being responsive in general. Being respectful to our tribal leadership and being responsive. I hope to have additional staff come on board so that we can also continue to improve our communication, build our relationship with the tribes to be proactive and provide the needs. We can always, you know, work on being better listeners and understand their needs, and be of service to tribes. And first and foremost, that is the message I brought to the staff when I came on board and that is why we're here. And I just want to encourage that we are there for them.

KYUK: Thank you very much for your time today, I really appreciate it. And congratulations on your new position.

John: Quyana cakneq. Thank you very much.

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of some Yugtun words.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.