Former Makah tribal chairman dead at 74
Ben Johnson in 2009
By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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Johnson died Monday at Olympic Medical Center after a heart attack. He was 74.
A celebration of life for him is planned at the Neah Bay Community Gym, with a dinner to follow.
The Makah Tribal Council will issue a resolution as a tribute to his contributions, and tribal operations will be closed from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. today as a tribute to Johnson's contributions, said Meri Parker, general manager.
“He was the council representative to boards and committees and will be remembered for his role in matters concerning the stewardship of our natural resources — fish, shellfish, trees, land, rivers, the ocean, the air,” Parker said.
In addition to serving as personnel officer, general manager, fisheries assistant director and fisheries director, Johnson served on the Makah Tribal Council between 1998 and 2000. He was re-elected in 2001 and served through 2007.
Johnson was tribal chairman for seven years and supported the Makah's successful harvest of a 30-ton female gray whale in 1999.
In a Peninsula Daily News story on the 10th anniversary of the harvest, Johnson worried that the cultural significance of the whale harvest would be lost to the younger generation if whaling did not resume.
“I should feel happy about that day, but I'm not because we have people that are still against us,” said Johnson, who lived all his life in Neah Bay except for two years when he attended Peninsula College in Port Angeles.
Johnson said he decided not to run for re-election to the tribal council in part because of the toll the world's reaction took on him when the Makah resumed whaling.
The Makah hunted whales as a diet staple for hundreds of years and reserved the right to continue doing so — the only tribe in the Lower 48 states — in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay.
The tribe ceased whaling in the 1920s after whales nearly had been extirpated and did not resume until Pacific gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994.
Gray whales remain regulated under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The Makah are continuing to seek federal approval for another whale hunt.
“A lot of interest maybe was lost after we started jumping through all the hoops,” Johnson said in 2009.
“It gets old. We don't want to stir the pot again. People don't like to hear the truth. We have to think about things like that. We are whalers.”
Tribal Chairman Timothy Greene, who served with Johnson on the tribal council in 2007, said his friend and colleague was "certainly a leader that you wouldn't forget."
"He had a good balance of being able to listen to the issues, and then also the ability make wise decisions on behalf of the tribe," Greene said.
"He was truly a public servant, having served the tribe in a number of capacities."
In addition to his love of fishing, Johnson also an amateur meteorologist who was known for his accurate weather forecasts.
"I don't remember him ever being wrong," Greene said.
Greene said Johnson was "a perfect leader for the tribe at a time when it was under a lot of public scrutiny," referring to the whale harvest.
"He was the man at the helm at that time," Greene said.
Born in Neah Bay to Bender Johnson Sr. and Harriet Eliot Stewart on May 22, 1939, Johnson began fishing with his father and grandfather at the age of 5 and spent most of his life fishing for a living, according to an obituary appearing at www.peninsuladailynews.com.
Johnson graduated from Peninsula College with numerous certificates and a fisheries technician degree.
He worked as a biologist for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries on the research vessel George B. Kelez in the Bering Sea and returned to Neah Bay to devote his life to the Makah people.
Johnson served with the Makah Housing Authority and became Makah fisheries director and youth programs executive director.
He was also a charter boat skipper and a tribal police officer.
“Ben was a respected fisherman who learned the ways of the ocean, currents and other signs from his father and those men from that generation, and always returned with an impressive catch,” Parker said.
“He was equally adept as a leader with the tribe and as a father raised a family that has that same long-term interest for the success of our people,” she added.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Jeanne Johnson; five children; three brothers; one sister; 30 grandchildren; and 51 great-grandchildren.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsula
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb contributed to this report.
Last modified: April 03. 2014 5:56PM