Alaska News

Former Barrow mayor killed in Anchorage vehicle-pedestrian collision

The man who died after being struck by an SUV on East Fifth Avenue near Merrill Field late Monday was the longest-serving mayor of Barrow, a leader who presided over the nation's northernmost city during a period of modernization starting in the 1970s, and who also played an important role in improving life across the North Slope.

Nate Olemaun Jr., 72, was a powerful voice in the 1970s, who fought for oil wealth from the giant Prudhoe Bay field to be shared with local communities, said a former political foe who now calls Olemaun an "old buddy."

"It was a constant battle for the North Slope Borough to get its rightful share of oil revenue and Nate fought that battle against the state," said another former mayor, Jim Vorderstrasse.

"He was a strong voice in that effort, a real firebrand," said the city's current mayor, Bob Harcharek, who arrived in Barrow in the late 1970s, before running water and sewer and other modern facilities were part of life in North Slope villages.

Olemaun, a mayor for 15 years and also a whaling captain, was struck Monday at about 9:30 p.m. by a 2009 Ford Edge traveling east while crossing the 1500 block of East Fifth Avenue near a Holiday gas station north of Merrill Field, Anchorage police said.

Olemaun died at the scene, and the SUV's driver remained to cooperate with responders. Police closed the road eastbound for hours as they investigated the crash, with no charges or citations issued as of Tuesday morning.

A relative reached Tuesday said the family was still taking in news of the tragedy and was yet not prepared to comment.

Friends said Olemaun was in Anchorage with his wife, Ida Olemaun, a board member with the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. The Native regional corporation is meeting in Anchorage this week.

Harcharek said Tuesday morning the news was just beginning to spread on Facebook in the city of about 4,500. He said the fall whaling season that was planned to start Friday will likely be delayed until a funeral can be held, he said.

"He was an excellent mayor and he was very concerned about the community," said Harcharek. "A lot of things happened under his administration and he was well-respected without any question."

Starting in 1977, Olemaun first served in office for 12 years, working without pay for a decade. He initiated the city's permanent fund and established a scholarship fund, as well as a teen center, playgrounds and other facilities including the first city hall, according to a summary of his record created after he left office in 1989.

"We cannot even begin, in this space, to list all of Nate's many accomplishments," the summary said.

Olemaun again won election in 2004, when the mayor was a paid position, following changes he'd helped implement in 1988.

Olemaun's final, three-year term was marred by a scandal involving a temporary boost his salary -- amounting to about $20,000 in overpayment -- an increase Olemaun had signed off on, but the city council had not approved.

Olemaun played an active role outside city matters as well, but always as a "strong advocate" for the city, said Vorderstrasse.

According to Project Jukebox, an oral history website maintained by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Olemaun also served on the board of directors at the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp. after spending much of his childhood in the Lower 48 but coming back to Alaska.

"Nate returned to Barrow in 1970, and re-learned his native Inupiaq language and traditional hunting and whaling skills," UAF staff wrote. "He married Ida Oyagak and went whaling with her father, Roxy Oyagak, from 1970 to 1991."

In a 2009 interview with Matthew Druckenmiller for UAF's Sea Ice Project, Olemaun -- who had learned whaling skills from his father-in-law -- said he had frequented Siklukqaq, an area now known as "Hollywood," on his whaling excursions.

"Thirty, last -- 39 years, that's the only place I've been whaling," Olemaun said.

Harcharek, who was also Olemaun's neighbor, said he often visited Olemaun at his house. He was always ready to share what he knew about traditional hunting.

"He would teach me the proper way to do things," Harcharek said. "Why they butcher the whale in a certain way, starting in various sections."