Adam Becenti, Diné, former tribal affairs director for Oregon Department of Human Services, will step into the role of Tribal Relations Program manager, ending a five-month vacancy, according to a Friday morning announcement from the City of Portland’s Office of Government Relations. Becenti will lead an office of two.

“I feel like this role is me just giving back and holding true to my commitment to my community,” Becenti said in an interview with Underscore + ICT. “One of the most exciting things about this is to be able to create awareness and bring visibility for Native people, for tribes and for the urban Indian community.”

Becenti's maternal clan is Tsi’naa jinii, Black Streak Wood People, and his paternal clan the Tsé Nahabiłnii, Sleep Rock People. He grew up in Gallup, New Mexico and moved to Portland 11 years ago. An active community member, Becenti is often spotted at events around Portland. From presenting at ATNI conferences to attending the inaugural Native and Indigenous bike ride and the Native American Heritage Month Portland Trail Blazers game, Becenti shows up for his community.

He has held multiple roles serving the Native community in the city and beyond. Most recently, he worked for five years as tribal affairs director at the Oregon Department of Human Services. Before that, Becenti served as the community engagement specialist at the National Indian Child Welfare Association for just over three years.

Becenti attended the University of Colorado Boulder for his undergraduate education, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and ethnic studies. In 2013, he earned a master’s in public policy at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, before making his way to the Pacific Northwest.

Through government-to-government engagement with Native nations across Oregon and relationships with the urban Native community in Portland, the tribal relations program aims to promote culturally grounded work to improve programs and services for Native people living in Portland, according to the city.

“As tribal relations program manager, Becenti will develop a strategic vision for the city’s work with sovereign tribes and Portland’s urban American Indian and Alaska Native communities, facilitate government-to-government relations, and inform programs, policies and decision-making to create a welcoming and inclusive city,” according to a press release.

The City of Portland first created the Tribal Relations Program in 2016, originally staffed by Patricia Davis Gibson, then led by Laura John for the next five years. John left in June 2023, after signing a $136,000 severance agreement that required her to waive any potential age discrimination claims. That amount was equal to John’s annual salary.

The City then promoted Miranda Mishan to Tribal Relations Program Manager, shrinking what was once a team of three to an office of one. Mishan left the program in November 2023.

The city’s Tribal Relations Program has been vacant ever since.

That vacancy has had a tangible effect on city policy. One of John’s efforts, revamping the way the city and the Portland Police Bureau collect race and ethnicity data, has been stalled since she left, according to Brody Sargent, the Portland Police Bureau’s equity and inclusion specialist.

“They've had a massive amount of turnover, which has impacted our ability to rely on them for expertise around the Native issues we’re working on,” Sargent said.

Previously a department of three, the city only has secured funding to staff two positions moving forward, according to Carrie Belding, spokesperson for the city’s office of management and finance. In addition to Becenti, the city plans to eventually hire a tribal relations associate. Belding said the city eliminated the third tribal relations position in part because it sat empty for so long. She attributed the change to challenges in funding the overhaul of city government structure slated for January 2025.

“Due to the costs associated with the city’s transition, vacant positions were identified to provide resources for new positions to support the new council form of government,” Belding said in an email. “Government Relations was able to ensure continued permanent funding for two positions for the Tribal Relations Program.”

Becenti is slated to begin his new role as tribal relations manager on Monday, April 22. Becenti’s starting salary is the same amount as John’s salary when she left: $136,000 per year.

“It's exciting to be a part of and to be in a position where we can create some change, and to create some awareness and visibility on who we are, the challenges that we face, the needs, and eventually finding out priorities and solutions,” Becenti said.

Karina Brown contributed reporting to this story.

Lead photo: Adam Becenti, Diné, will step into the role of Tribal Relations Program Manager for the City of Portland on April 22, 2024. (Photo courtesy of City of Portland)

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...

Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....