Going forward into the new year, organizations like Orutsararmiut Native Council are plotting out what they plan to accomplish. KYUK's Krysti Shallenberger sat down with ONC Executive Director Peter Evon to talk about what he saw as the organization’s biggest accomplishments in 2018, and ONC's goals for 2019. The following is a condensed and edited interview.
Krysti Shallenberger: So when did you start as ONC’s Executive Director?
Peter Evon: I started in late May. I came over from AVCP, the regional housing authority.
Shallenberger: What were the goals for the organization? How were you planning to reach those goals?
Evon: When I went though the interview process there were several things they wanted me to focus on. One of them was to try to keep looking for more grant opportunities to keep growing our capacity, whether it be our social services, our natural resources. Obviously Donlin [Gold mine] was a big push there. The Stand for Salmon [ballot iniative] sort of stuff. That was a big organizational goal. I really wasn’t expecting to apply for the job. Once it came open, I felt like I was ready to try to take on a new challenge. Actually, it’s been going really well so far.
Shallenberger: How has it been going well? What are the biggest accomplishments you have achieved this year?
Evon: I definitely can’t take all the credit, being brand new over there. We have a lot of directors that have been there a long time. We have recently acquired two grants that are big ones and, obviously, on top of our regular annual grants that we apply for different departments. The one we’re really working right now on is our Elders’ Justice grant. Actually, there are two of them. [The Elders’ Justice grant came from the Administration for Community Living]. It’s a federal grant, and it’s actually the very first time in U.S. history that a tribe has been awarded that grant. Nikki Pollock deserves most of the credit because she runs our senior services program as our director. She’s been working on it since last year. That was before I got there and so they deserve all the credit on it. Basically, it is a $700,000 grant and we’re trying to use it to reopen the senior service building. That’s a big goal. Obviously, that building needs a lot of work. So we’re obviously looking to other opportunities just in case. We are going through the process of reevaluating the building, speaking to our council about what the next steps will be. I mean that’s the big goal to get our Elders from this community a place to socialize, a place to come. I hear it all the time when I’m at AC, when I’m in town, I get an Elder to ask, “What’s the progress on it?” That’s our big push for this year.
Shallenberger: What other big milestones for ONC did you see for this year?
Evon: That Stand for Salmon was a big push. We’re trying to be a little more vocal when it comes to issues that are going to impact the community and the region. Try to be there to assist other tribes and villages in the region, whether it be the Stand for Salmon stuff, a land-use agreement to work with other villages on so people know about the limitations or the openness. That’s the best thing about this region is people come from Akiachak, my community, and they go to coastal areas to fish. Then you get people from the coastal area come up here to get wood and stuff to bring home. That’s a great relationship. So making things clear from both ends about how we want to continue in that approach is a big one. I mean just a lot of internal stuff that as a Native Council that I wanted to see progress internally, whether it be with our technology, staff services, or benefits; things like that. Because the turnover rate is fairly high, obviously, with any job or any organization. That’s kind of my big thing to increase the benefits to keep our talent. We do have a lot of great staff members and great people in this region and this community, and to attract those people you have to be able to offer them the things they need to be successful.
Shallenberger: So looking ahead for next year, what are the goals you have in mind for ONC and the region that you would like to see accomplished?
Evon: Actually, the biggest thing we’re working on now is there is a 17-acre subdivision right behind the post office, the health center area right there that we’re trying to develop. That’s one of our biggest hurdles for years: just finding land to build homes. We have our annual allotment from the HUD (Housing and Urban Development) grant to build homes, but there is no land available in this town. And a lot of times you have to go through BIA and that’s a long process. For years they have been working on it. We’re hoping to break ground this coming springtime and summer with an access road to get in there. Then we can start developing that. We’re expecting 40-plus lots for low-income housing. There’s actually space for a commercial lot, which we’re looking at trying to build an ONC campus where we’re going to have administrative offices, a teen center for kids afterschool and everything else, a day care, which is a huge need in this town. I have five kids, so it’s always a battle to try to find reliable childcare in this town. Everybody knows that. We’re going to try to get that developed as well. Also if the senior center does not come through with the older building, we’re going to look at building one over there.
These directors that I have now, there’s been several that have been there for several years. So I can’t take any of the credit because they have been planning on it for a while. What we are trying to do is have an intergenerational facility where we have Elders interacting with children, with teens, and basically have it as a place where people can come together. Elders share their stories, and obviously they need the socialization with the younger generation. That’s our big focus for this coming year.
Shallenberger: What does that mean for the Yup’ik culture with that intergenerational interaction?
Evon: When I was growing up in Akiachak, it was always a big focus to have once a month get-togethers with Elders, and they’d mix in with the teens. Elders would come to the school and speak. I’m sure they still do that here and in the region, but it would be nice to have a dedicated facility for that kind of thing where after hours they have a reliable place they can go, that they know is going to be open. They know there’s going to be interaction. Obviously with our Yup’ik culture it’s highly important that they be able to pass on the knowledge, pass on stories. And that’s something we’re going to be looking at as well. We just acquired new recording equipment to record Elders' stories, Elders' knowledge, and things like that so we don’t lose that while we still have them. It’s highly important. It’s one of the most important things we have is our Elders. So to have them pass on their knowledge, to myself even. I’m only 35 myself. So for people from my generation and on down, it’s highly important.
Shallenberger: I want to go back. You said something about a land trust. Can you explain that a little bit more for me.
Evon: The land-use agreement?
Evon: It’s basically, just like I said, it’s just making sure people understand that if you go far upriver in Aniak and that region, they are a lot more restrictive about their land. And so what we’re trying to do is basically make sure that our region and near Bethel understand that we’re still trying to, basically, that give and take where, like I said, people come up here for wood and we go down there for fishing and berry picking and all that good stuff. And so to make sure that we’re trying to share our land. It’s not ours, it’s there for everybody, but still understand that there needs to be some type of agreement that it’s still open for business both ways.
Shallenberger: When do you think that land-use agreement… is it signed already?
Evon: It’s not super formal, to be honest. We kind of sent out a letter to every village in the region to kind of inform and get their ideas on what they think. We actually have had a few back that were, you know, that they agreed and were signed and things like that. But it’s not law or legal or things like that. It’s basically an understanding.
Shallenberger: And looking out into the future a little bit more, like five, six, seven years down the road, where would you like to see ONC grow as an organization and what do you see as its impact on the surrounding region?
Evon: Obviously that subdivision is a big focus for us because it will take us up to the next level, whether it be homes for our low-income residents or for facilities. Just to have that place up and running would be a huge milestone for us. But on top of that we’re trying to grow departments, trying to build our capacity. That’s kind of our whole point to even have this type of organization is to try and help as many people as we can. And ONC does have the most membership, I believe, in state. I believe we are almost 2,550 members, obviously growing every day. To be able to effectively and efficiently help them as much as we can with the funding we get is important because you never know when grant funding is going to die and not be available. So being self-sustainable is a big portion of that. So finding different avenues to generate revenue is a big focus for us.