Ralph Andersen, head of the Bristol Bay Native Association, a major regional Native organization in Southwest Alaska, died Wednesday at age 67.
He died of medical complications related to cancer, family said.
Among numerous titles, Andersen was the longtime president of BBNA, providing social services to villages in Southwest Alaska. He was also a former co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state’s largest Native organization.
AFN said in a social media post Friday that the organization’s thoughts and prayers are with Andersen’s family.
Originally from the village of Clark’s Point south of Dillingham, Andersen overcame a challenging childhood that included the loss of his father at an early age, family and friends said.
He preferred to work humbly in the background, fighting for Native social issues and against the Pebble prospect, they said.
“He was just as at home in Washington, D.C., as he was in Clark’s Point,” said Jason Metrokin, head of the Bristol Bay Native Corp.
Andersen graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks after also attending Dartmouth College, his family said. As a young man, Andersen was a newspaper reporter in Fairbanks. At one point, Andersen impressed North Slope Borough Mayor Eben Hopson Sr., who hired him.
Flossie Andersen, Ralph’s wife, said he quietly helped organize former President Barack Obama’s visit to Dillingham in 2015. The president and Andersen danced together to a Yup’ik beat in front of a crowd at the Dillingham gym.
“Obama said, ‘I’m not going up there alone, you come with me,’ ” said Doreen Andersen, his daughter. “My dad said, ‘I never danced in my life,’ and the president said, ‘I don’t care, you’re coming with me.’ ”
Alannah Hurley with United Tribes of Bristol Bay, an opponent of the Pebble copper and gold prospect who often worked with Andersen, said the region is grieving his loss.
Hurley, also from Clark’s Point, said Andersen exemplified strong leadership for younger generations like hers.
“He was an example of what true Indigenous leadership looks like,” she said. “He was very humble and he operated with great deal of respect for everyone, even if he disagreed with your opinion.”