Rural Alaska

For the first time, a woman leads this big Alaska Native organization. Her grandfather was a founder.

BETHEL – After months of tension, discord and questions about its very viability from some of its Southwest Alaska member tribes, the region's leading Alaska Native nonprofit answered this week with a call for unity, a new power structure and for the first time, a woman in charge.

The Association of Village Council Presidents, made of 56 tribes in 48 villages throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, punctuated its annual convention in Bethel on Thursday with the naming of Vivian Johnson Korthuis as its first chief executive officer.

When financial troubles started to become apparent to AVCP leaders in August 2015, Korthuis, who grew up in the village of Emmonak, led the effort to turn the organization around, board members said.

"She's a visionary," Laurie O'Brien, one of her top lieutenants, told the convention members Tuesday in the buildup to the announcement.

[AVCP calls for action to address worsening alcohol problems in villages from Bethel liquor store]

Yet even as AVCP remakes itself with new leaders and a more powerful executive board, some fractures remain and challenges are evident.

Tribal members refused at the convention to approve minutes of the last two conventions, including a special meeting in June, with some members saying the record was incomplete.

AVCP relies on federal and state grants for most of its funding, but wasn't always following the rules on how to handle the money, said Cindy Doyle, a financial consultant hired by AVCP.

Grant reports to government agencies were late and money was being moved between grants, which isn't allowed, she said. Instead, AVCP should use a line of credit, said Doyle, a principal with a Seattle area accounting and consulting firm, Clark Nuber.

The problems were so serious that AVCP was at risk of losing its funding, according to board members and organization general counsel Liz Pederson, who joined AVCP less than two years ago.

AVCP is one of the region's most significant institutions, with a $52 million budget and some 400 employees – about half in villages — running programs in areas that include Head Start, tribal welfare and public safety.

Into the top job steps Korthuis, 52. She grew up in small rural villages and became an Ivy League graduate. She has worked for AVCP for 14 years, most recently as the organization's vice president of programs, and before that was a leader at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.

"She is the perfect choice," Mike Hoffman, who has been filling in as interim president, told the tribal delegates Thursday. "She constantly, constantly is thinking 10 miles ahead of everybody else."

One of Korthuis's ideas is creation of a multi-program family service center for Headstart preschool and child welfare, tribal justice and Temporary Aid to Needy Families — eight programs in all that will now work together.

Clients eventually will be able to tap a variety of services through one electronic intake form "rather than eight different paper forms," said O'Brien, administrator of the family service center.  "This is a brand-new project."

Korthuis was picked from seven applicants by the organization's executive board, normally 11 members but down to 10 in recent months after the protest resignation of an Akiak tribal leader, former state Rep. Ivan Ivan.

Henry Hunter, AVCP board chairman, announced her selection to a packed hall at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel where people responded with exclamations and applause.

In the past, the organization was ruled by a president elected by all 56 tribes but who operated with little oversight in the two years between elections.

When Myron Naneng abruptly stepped down in May during a period of tumult, he had been in the job almost continuously since 1990. The next month, the full membership handed the executive board firing authority over the president.

Some tribes had been pushing for a bigger shakeup with a new executive board. Instead, the delegates as a whole gave the board new power.

After a daylong closed-door session Wednesday, the executive board said that tribal delegates overrode their earlier action, replacing the president's post with a chief executive officer and giving the executive board authority over that individual, now Korthuis.

The delegates also decided that executive board members should serve three years, not as long as the board wanted but longer than the current system, which saw some board members out after just a year.

Executive board members and Pederson, the general counsel, said the changes were needed to bring the organization in line with state law governing corporations and to make sure the board had control over the top AVCP person.

Until now, "we didn't have a job description to go by," said Roland White, an executive board member from Tuntutuliak.

The president was picked in a "popularity vote," Edgar Hoelscher, an executive board member from Hooper Bay, told the convention.

AVCP's three-day annual meeting built toward Thursday's announcement of Korthuis, with plugs for her along the way and the resumes of board members projected on a screen to underscore their credentials.

Naneng was there on Thursday, too. When Korthuis was called to the front, he went as well and spoke briefly before she did. He said he wanted to show his appreciation for the years that members put him in charge.

"Quyana cakneq," he told the crowd, Yup'ik for thank you very much.

At the podium, Korthuis half-joked that she needed someone beside her so she didn't faint. She told the crowd that she had a lot of ideas and concerns for the region.

"It's really hard to describe to people how we live here; we don't even have cement," she was quoted two years ago in The New York Times, which highlighted her words as its quote of the day. "When I went to school on the East Coast, it was like describing living on the moon."

Her strengths, she told the crowd Thursday, "are from you." The power comes from families, from communities that bring forward what AVCP must work on, she said.

As a Yup'ik woman, she said, she found it hard to talk about herself, "to boast."

"That's not what we do," she said.

Yet her backstory is impressive. She was born in Bethel and grew up in the Yukon River village of Emmonak and in St. Michael on Norton Sound, the oldest of seven children. Her grandfather, Axel Johnson, was a founder of AVCP.

She went to Mount Edgecumbe High School then Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. She's now a doctoral candidate in indigenous studies at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Her earliest memory, she said, is from before she could even walk. Her great-grandmother lifted her up to look out the window. She saw a rolling fireball go across the land and disappear. Years later, the cultural leader Paul John told her it was the spirit of someone powerful that wanted to show itself.

Take care of that story, he told her, take care of all that you ever knew. Sometimes those old stories may not seem true but they are, she said.

When she was a little girl of maybe 7 years old, she accompanied her father on a trip to Anchorage. He was negotiating a price for Yukon king salmon with a Japanese buyer. A white man was there, too, a lawyer.

He was OK, she figured out. He was helping her father get the best price.

That encounter led her to a decision to go away to school. She wanted to learn how to provide that help "so that we don't have to bring in this person."

Now Korthuis is doing what she set out to do, right in her homeland on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.