Between meetings of the University of Alaska Board of Regents, the Governor's Subsistence Leadership Summit and the Sealaska Heritage Institute board of trustees, Marlene Johnson found time last summer to cultivate what might be some of Juneau's largest vegetables.
"I have one potato at home that's 4 pounds," Johnson said. "I have a turnip that's 17 pounds. I still have it sitting outside. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it, but it's huge."
An avid gardener with two plots at the Juneau Community Garden, Johnson has tended to more than vegetables this year. A well-known Southeast Native leader, Johnson is an advocate for fisheries, health and education issues.
As one of the newest members of the university's Board of Regents, Johnson will help oversee the system's budget and president. She was appointed in May and plans to keep an eye on the Juneau campus, distance delivery and rural programs, she said.
"The high dropout rate of rural students and Alaska Native students from the university in their freshman year is a particular concern to me. So we'll see if we can help find out what the problem is and why, and do something about it," she said.
As one of three commissioners on the state's Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, Johnson acts as an administrative law judge if a fishing permit decision is appealed. A former council member for the university's School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, she now will attend its meetings as a university regent. The university can contribute to the state's fisheries through its staff and research, she said.
"You take a place like Dillingham that's having problems right now and a disaster because of the downturn and the prices being low, I think the university has a real role to play," she said. "I think they owe it to the state, they owe it to the communities to be there."
Johnson has served on the Alaska Federation of Natives' subsistence committee and was a part of the governor's Subsistence Leadership Summit last summer.
"I still go subsistence fishing every year and do my own canning and smoking," she said. "I was pleased with the outcome (of the summit) because I saw a number of people that said they had learned a lot. That's all we can do is educate people, and that I think was the biggest outcome of the summit in my viewpoint."
Johnson has hope that a subsistence amendment will make it on the ballot.
"I think the state of Alaska needs to manage its own fisheries," she said. "Some of us have lived under the federal government's rule on a lot of issues before ... and we remember what it was like. So if we could get it to a vote, I would really like to see the state manage its own fisheries."
Born in Hoonah, Johnson has lived in Juneau since 1988 and still has a home in Hoonah. She is a Raven, T'Dak Dein taan from the Mount Fairweather house, nicknamed the Snail House. Married to Clifford Johnson, she has five children, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Daughter Jodi Wise remembers her mother's 26 years on Hoonah School Board. Her mother played a major role in her children's efforts in school, said Wise, who also pointed to her mother's quick wit and sarcastic sense of humor.
"The thing about my mom is she's very honest. Anybody who knows her well knows she's honest and true to her word," she said.
Johnson, 66, was a founding board member of Sealaska and was chairwoman for 10 years. Today, she serves on the Sealaska Heritage Institute's board of trustees and is the chairwoman of the Celebration 2002 committee. The institute's efforts in Native language instruction, Head Start and documenting traditional stories and songs are important, she said.
"To the shareholders and the young people who aren't shareholders yet, it's their connection," she said. "They help the young people with their self-esteem and identity. If we want to educate them, we have to let them know who they are and let them be proud of who they are."
Johnson also is a trustee on the Huna Heritage Foundation. Executive Director Joe Leahy said she is known statewide for her work on business, education, government, tribal and cultural matters.
"I think she is just an incredibly talented person and one who recognizes she has a lot to give and is generous in giving," he said.
These days, Johnson is hoping to develop a youth leadership group for Southeast Alaska Natives and is working to improve the health of Alaska Natives and American Indians through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Being a grandmother is another priority.
"Busy people are always involved. Hopefully it keeps me young," she said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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