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Nome Native leader Charlie Johnson dies of heart failure

Mike Dunham
DAVID HULEN / Anchorage Daily News

Charlie Johnson, a former chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives and a longtime Native leader from Nome, died Thursday in Anchorage of heart failure. He was 72.

Johnson, an Inupiat, was born Dec. 9, 1939, in White Mountain. He received degrees in math and business administration from the University of Oregon in 1966. A born scientist, he worked with numerous agencies gathering and evaluating data relating to Arctic wildlife and environmental issues.

Among the many science-related posts he held during the course of his career: adviser to the Marine Mammal Commission; commissioner on the Unites States Arctic Research Commission; Circumpolar Arctic Research chair of the Alaska Native Science Commission; appointments to the Alaska Science Review Group, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Delegation Arctic Council and CAFF Working Group of the International Arctic Social Science Committee; executive director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission; and, most recently, executive director of the Nanuuq Commission, representing Alaska villages on matters regarding polar bears.

He was also involved in political activities, serving as the president of Kawerak Inc. from 1976-1983, president of Bering Straits Native Corp. from 1983-1988, and AFN chairman from 1981-1983.

Among his accomplishments was helping establish visa-free travel between Russia and Alaska for Native Alaskans and their relatives in Chukotka, long separated by the Cold War.

Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell first met Johnson in 1987 when the two helped set up the historic 1988 "Friendship Flight" that marked the opening of the border between Russia and Alaska. They worked together on various other issues, including wildlife preservation and management, over the years.

In a press release, Treadwell recalled, "No meeting with Charlie ever happened without a good laugh and a real sense of purpose. Charlie accomplished a great deal for Alaska."

He was also well regarded on the other side of the Bering Sea. Leonid Gorenshteyn, chief commissioner of Russia's Bering Straits Regional Commission, remembered "working with Charlie Johnson for many years. We highly appreciated this wise and cheerful person. We realize it is not only we, but every person who has ever been acquainted with him will miss him."

In a letter of condolence to Johnson's widow, Brenda, the governor of Russia's Chukotka Autonomous Region, called Johnson "a person who made a great contribution to development of the people of the North. (The) good works of your husband will always stay in the hearts of the peoples of Alaska and Chukotka."

"He loved to read and he loved opera," said Brenda Johnson, his wife of 43 years. "He was a very refined person."

Johnson was preceded in death by his son Truman. He is survived by his son Frank "Boogles" Johnson of Nome and daughter Nicole Johnston of Eagle River. Services are planned in Anchorage on May 6 and Nome on May 12.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News