Tribal Government & News

Tribal member Bryan Mercier takes the reins as regional director of BIA

02.14.2019 Danielle Frost Federal government, People
Bureau of Indian Affairs Northwest Regional Director and Tribal member Bryan Mercier goes through paperwork in his Portland office on Friday, Feb. 8. (Photo by Timothy J. Gonzalez/Smoke Signals)

By Danielle Frost

Smoke Signals staff writer

PORTLAND -- Grand Ronde Tribal member Bryan Mercier didn’t travel far when he left his job at the Bonneville Power Administration for one at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

He merely walked across the courtyard from the BPA offices to the BIA offices.

Although Mercier still drives to the same building he has for the past 10 years, the job he does now is very different. While at the BPA, he served as division director of Fish and Wildlife. Now, Mercier is the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ regional director, the senior most official overseeing all Northwest BIA functions ranging from staffing to transportation.

“We’re a microcosm of federal government services,” he said. “I was happy with my former job, but this has been a great opportunity to help Indian Country.”

He takes the helm of the Portland BIA office from Stanley Speaks, who retired in 2017.

“I have known Stan for several years and I’m trying to meet with him every few months,” Mercier said. “He has a lot of knowledge and was here for a long time.”

Mercier, 45, is not the only member of his immediate family serving Indian Country. His younger brother, Chris, is Grand Ronde Tribal Council vice chair.

“Indian Country is pretty small so I don’t think it’s uncommon to have situations like these, but you have to be careful and aware of it,” he said.

This means Mercier will need to recuse himself from making any decisions that directly affect the Grand Ronde Tribe.

“Even the perception of that is something I want to completely avoid,” he said. “There are ethics rules for federal employees which are very clear.”

Mercier’s family has a long history in Grand Ronde and he grew up knowing his great-grandparents, Hubert and Martha Mercier. His grandparents are Winston and Michelle Mercier, and parents are Bryce and Patricia Mercier. He also has a half-brother, Damien Mercier.

Mercier is married to wife Christine, and the couple has two children, 7-year-old Kali and 9-year-old Keekoa.

He jokes about being a “professional student” until almost turning 30. First, Mercier earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon and then a graduate economics certificate from the University of Freiburg in Germany. He then earned a master’s degree in international law from Charles III University of Madrid in Spain.

He also served as principal legislative staff on federal Indian policy for Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith from 2003-05 as a Tribal Hatfield Fellow and through the Udall Foundation, which offers scholarships and internships to outstanding Native American and Alaska Native college students who want careers in health care and Tribal public policy.

Studying for advanced degrees and living abroad was far removed, both geographically and socially, from his experiences growing up in Salem, but Mercier has always had a desire to learn more about the world.

“Education is key,” he said. “College is not just about school. It is also about the chance to experience diversity. I grew up in rural Oregon. It would have been easy to stay there, but going to different schools opened up the world to me.”

Mercier has already dealt with the longest partial federal government shutdown in history during his first three months on the job – no easy task when you have 330 employees and most of them are furloughed.

“What was the hardest part was seeing my staff go through this,” he said. “Some of them live paycheck to paycheck and it was hard (for many) to make ends meet. I didn’t want to lose more people.”

Mercier noted that due to retirements, he is down approximately 70 people and is looking to fill positions, something that couldn’t be done during the shutdown.

“Hiring is one of my top three priorities right now,” he said.

The other two are visiting all 45 Tribes in the BIA Northwest region, which includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alaska and Montana, and improving Tribal self-determination.

Mercier said the most interesting part of his new job so far is the variety and the toughest part is the size of the bureaucracy.

“I am working on the culture within the BIA and trying to build on that,” he said. “I want to engage with staff and empower them to believe in the mission. They have the desire to serve Indian Country so I want to make it more collaborative and engaging.”

Although Mercier is enjoying his new job, especially since his employees are back at work, he misses BPA co-workers.

“I was there for 10 years and had a great career,” he said. “It was hard to leave, but I like being dedicated 100 percent to working with Tribes. I started my career that way and miss the camaraderie.”

Part of his goal of visiting all 45 Tribes will begin this summer, when he takes his family on the road in a recreational vehicle and will work remote.

“That trip with my kids is going to be an awesome experience,” he said.

Before Mercier worked for BPA and BIA, he served as a financial advisor for the U.S. Treasury and a program analyst for the Forest Service.

He has had several mentors along the way. One is Roy Sampsel (Choctaw/Wyandotte), who led the way in establishing Tribal fishing rights and greater protection for the Columbia River watershed. He walked on in 2017. He also served the Department of the Interior as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs. 

Another mentor is Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Council Chair Ron Allen.

Allen and Mercier have known each other for 10 years, dating back to when Mercier worked for BPA.

“I have always appreciated his leadership and managerial skills,” Allen said. “He led a large program at BPA and made sure his staff fully understood our sovereignty, jurisdiction and treaty rights. His calm and balanced disposition served him well as a problem solver and caused those who worked with him to have confidence that he understood their views or ideals.”

He added that Mercier is replacing a “Northwest legacy” in Speaks, but that he has reached out to him for insights.

“He brings the right personality and skill set to serve our 45 Tribes in our Northwest region,” Allen said. “He is quick to acknowledge there are many concerns and needs of the Northwest Tribes that he doesn’t understand, but possesses a quick learning curve. … Bryan is one who looks to insights of his team and those who can provide him the right kind of counsel to make good decisions as a Tribal advocate. We are hopeful he will stick with us for a long time.”

Thinking back on his accomplishments thus far, Mercier said he owes a debt of gratitude to the Tribe.

“The Tribe helped me get through college and graduate debt-free,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that, I would have never gone to Europe or Washington, D.C. The assistance I have gotten has been huge over the years.”

Mercier also worked on the Tribe’s first-ever Summer Youth Crew in 1989 as one of four members.

He’s come a long way from summer youth employee to BIA regional director, but Mercier views as it returning to what he enjoys most: Serving Tribal people.

“I’m excited about this opportunity,” he said. “Being the first new regional director in 40 years can be intimidating, but I want to make this area the crown jewel of BIA operations in the country.”