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Bristol Bay leader Ralph Andersen remembered for his dedication, compassion and sense of humor

Courtesy of Norm Van Vactor

Friends and family say Ralph Andersen left an indelible mark on the Bristol Bay region, the state, and the country through his work. Andersen, who was president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Association, died Oct. 20.

When people talk about Ralph Andersen, they usually mention two things first: His strong work ethic and his sense of humor.

Andersen brought those qualities with him wherever he went, said his wife, Flossie Andersen.

“He was really easy to know," she said. "He always had a sense of humor around him, you know. So he has many contributions he made to all of us.”

Andersen died on Oct. 20 in Anchorage at age 67 of complications due to cancer, his family said. His family and friends remember him as a passionate and longtime leader of the Bristol Bay Native Association and advocate of subsistence rights. They also remember his perseverance, his laugh, his empathy and the way he told a good story.

“He hosted the president and he even danced Yup’ik dance with the president,” said Flossie Andersen, remembering then-President Barack Obama’s visit to Dillingham in 2015, which Ralph Andersen helped organize.

“I know that a lot of people see that on YouTube or wherever it’s shown,” she said and laughed. “But that was one of the experiences that he had. And that’s how Barack Obama and Ralph Andersen got famous.”

Andersen was born on April 24, 1954, and grew up in Clark’s Point, a small village south of Dillingham in Bristol Bay.

He attended Dartmouth College for two years and graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with dual degrees in Political Science and English in 1979, his family said.

Andersen lived in Utqiaġvik for about 20 years. He met Flossie while working for her father, the Inuit rights advocate, Eben Hopson.

“My father, the late Eben Hopson, introduced me to Ralph one day,” she said. “Upon Ralph’s insistence, he gave up, he’d go downstairs where I worked, and my dad introduced me to Ralph. So that's how it happened.”

The two were married for 40 years.

In Utqiaġvik, Andersen worked for the North Slope Borough, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and Ilisagvik College. In 1980, he traveled to Greenland to help establish the charter for the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

First Chief of the Curyung Tribal Council, Thomas Tilden, said he knew Andersen growing up in Bristol Bay. He met him passing through Clark’s Point, on his way to fish camp at Ekuk. 

He remembers one time when Andersen mentioned he caught a whale near Utqiaġvik.

Credit Courtesy of Norm Van Vactor
Ralph Andersen in Ekwok.

“And I was like, ‘Really? You caught a whale?’" Tilden said. "He said, ‘We broke trail out to the opening. And we pitched a tent and people had gone in to start heating up tea water. And he says him and a friend were outside, and right along the opening there comes a whale just cruising right by.”

Andersen grabbed the gun and his friend threw the spear.

“So he pulled the trigger on the gun," Tilden said. "And he said what was really funny was that he forgot to take the glove off of the gun, and so he shot right through that glove. And he says, ‘But I got the whale though.’ We laughed like heck about that,” remembered Tilden. “People always teased him about the fact that when he shot that whale, it was with that glove on the gun. He often told funny stories that happened to him, you know. That was one of the good things about Ralph, was that he shared things, and we'd have a good laugh about it afterwards.”

Andersen moved back to Bristol Bay in 1998, where he joined the Bristol Bay Native Association as the natural resources program manager before he became president and CEO in 2005.

Tilden said one of the first things he noticed about Andersen was his willingness to listen.

Credit Courtesy of Norm Van Vactor
Ralph Andersen and Norm Van Vactor.

“He would actually start investigating whatever subject that they were working on, and he would travel back to D.C. if it required him to do so,” said Tilden. “But he was always precise and hardworking and would get the job done. That was one of his outstanding characteristics of him. Yeah, you know, it made no difference who he was talking with.  And he was always kidding around. I mean, even when President Obama came to Dillingham.”

At the helm of the Bristol Bay Native Association, Andersen was deeply involved in the debate around the proposed Pebble Mine. In 2006, a year after Andersen was appointed, the board adopted a resolution opposing mining in the region until studies could prove that it could be done safely.

Credit United Tribes of Bristol Bay
Ralph Andersen speaking at an event in Anchorage. Oct. 8, 2019.

At a 2014 Environmental Protection Agency hearing in Dillingham, Andersen said that Pebble’s purpose as a for-profit corporation was to make profits for its shareholders.

“They aren’t here to protect our cultures and our resources. They aren’t here to protect our land and waters,” he said. “They aren’t here to make sure our world-class fisheries prosper and grow. They aren’t a job service. They have no commitment whatsoever to our region. Their commitment is to take minerals out of the ground at the highest profit, at the lowest possible cost.”

Andersen was also co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives Human Resources Committee and board, and later served as the board’s BBNA representative. He chaired the Bristol Bay Partnership and the Western Alaska Salmon Coalition too. 

Credit KDLG
Andersen, right, at a meeting on Pebble Mine in Dillingham in 2017.

Patrick Anderson served with Andersen as co-chair of AFN's Human Resources Committee, and said they worked closely on several federal policy issues that affect rural Alaska Natives, including the Indian Child Welfare Act and land policies like the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Anderson said that when Alaska Native rights advocates were unsuccessful in obtaining a Native preference for subsistence rights, they turned their focus to a system that enabled them to better access subsistence resources.

“Ralph was better versed in the technicalities of that system than I was. But basically, it was trying to set up, at that point, a tier system where locals would have access to resources before non-locals," Anderson said. "We were always trying to educate people about how important this was — particularly for Ralph and his constituency in Bristol Bay, with a balance between commercial fisheries and subsistence fisheries.”

Andersen’s work was marked by his range and depth of knowledge — from international Native rights conferences to meetings with politicians in Washington, D.C., to local discussions on subsistence in Bristol Bay.

He was also known for being compassionate and down-to-earth, with a knack for telling stories.

Fred Washington is originally from St. Michael, lived in Levelock and Dillingham, and now lives in Naknek. He said one day, years ago, a friend invited him to a steam, where he met Andersen. Those steams became a standing appointment.

Credit Courtesy of Cynthia Johnson
Ralph Andersen and Fred Washington at a BBNC conference in 2019.

“During the steam baths it was fun. ‘Cause the stories they’d tell, and Ralph was such a — he was a good storyteller," Washington said. "I'd sit there — I could visualize in my mind while he was telling the story.”

Washington said when he lived in Dillingham, Andersen would take him out on boat rides along the coast.

“I just want to say that I enjoyed him in life. And I hope you have a good trip going beyond, and I send my condolences to the family and friends of his,” he said.

Andersen was a shareholder of the Native village corporation of Clark’s Point, Saguyak, Inc., as well as the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. He was named BBNC Elder of the year in 2019.

He was devoted to working for the people, said Flossie Anderson.

“He was always working for the benefit of the Bristol Bay region, the benefit of the Arctic Slope region, the benefit of all of Alaska,” she said. “Wherever he went he had a purpose and he accomplished what he set out to do.”

Watch the funeral service for Ralph Andersen, held at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Dillingham Oct. 29, 2021.

Update: This story has been updated to specify that Ralph Andersen received dual degrees in political science and English from UAF.   

Contact the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.