Norma Johnson

Anchorage | KENai

  Johnson at the home of her friend Florence Francis Busch, standing before a case of ivory and bone carvings.

Johnson at the home of her friend Florence Francis Busch, standing before a case of ivory and bone carvings.

"Well, What are you?"

Growing up, I didn't even know I was Alaska Native. I’d say, "I’m Russian-Fin," because my grandpa on my dad’s side was from Finland and then my grandmothers were from, you know, Russian descent. And so it was always, “I’m Russian-Fin.” And that’s the way I identified myself. ... I was born in Kenai. My mom moved to Anchorage in 1942. My dad was a fisherman, and he fished for double-enders in Bristol Bay. ... Well, I'm still trying to find out my history. My lineage is on the Aleutian Chain. ... I am a member of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, which is the people of the Kenai. And so I always thought I was a Kenaitze. Now [it turns out] I don’t even know what a Kenaitze is! Are they Athabascan? Are they Aleut? Is that just a tribal name, you know, for the people of an area? So, I have to find that out. Who am I? It's a life-long question, and it involves an awful lot of research and paperwork, because my ancestry goes back to the time of Russian rule. We were not a part of America; we weren’t purchased when my great-grandparents were growing up, and even when they moved to the Kenai [Peninsula]. ... It wasn’t until the [Alaska] Native Claims Settlement Act [in 1971] that that became an issue, and somebody asked me, “Well, what are you?”


cupcake susie

My mom was Russian Orthodox. I was baptized Russian Orthodox; so were my brothers. There wasn’t a Russian Orthodox church here [in Anchorage], and that was something that my mom always yearned for. And it wasn't until later I would say--it was after I was married, I was married in 1960--it was after that that they started raising money for the Russian Orthodox church that’s over off Turpin. Have you been there? Oh, you must go. It’s beautiful. They have five domes, I think. ... But anyway, mom got involved, as they started to build the church, she got involved in helping to raise money. And they called her Cupcake Susie. Because my mom would bake cupcakes and they would be at every single-- they’d have coffee after church, and she would-- those cupcakes would be sold. And she became the president of the Sisterhood, and then when Saint Herman-- I guess it’s the canonization of Saint Herman, I think that’s what it is-- she went to Kodiak for that. She just absolutely loved her church. And that was important to her.

"I can still remember seeing the signs in the windows, like in the bars, saying: No Dogs and No Natives Allowed."


military & diversity in south central alaska

Well, the growth, the influx of people. ... Growth I think is the biggest thing, you know: population. I can remember the first time my little brother saw a black person. And he just was--his mouth just dropped, and he says, “Mom, he’s black! He's dirty! Black!” And they just laughed, but they had their fedora hats on, their overcoats on, they were just dressed to the nines. But that was really our first time ever--and he vocalized it--I had never seen a black person either.  But Anchorage, as Anchorage grew, there was, I think it was through the military, there were more black people who came to Anchorage. ... It was a surprise how Anchorage, the face of Anchorage, was changing because of, you know, the military. I can remember as a kid--and we lived at 3rd and Denali--going out, and the GIs had packed sandbags out by our outhouse across. And they were all in their, I guess you call, fatigues, and their helmets, and carrying rifles and stuff like that, and they were playing war games! Right in our backyard, where we played all the time. And so you know, the military was very much a presence in Anchorage. And not in a negative way either.

Before Outsiders came to alaska...

Like with the Permanent Fund [Dividend]. I would rather see that gone. I don’t think that we have an entitlement, and I’m just really really sad that they ever did away with the Alaska state income tax, because I think that’s something you should be proud of, is to support where you live, instead of having a handout from somebody else to support you. I just, you know, I wish they would do away with the Permanent Fund. Period. All of it. Cause what has happened in my view is that, people come up here because of the Permanent Fund. And then they bring their families, their very large families; they live off the Permanent Fund until it’s gone; and then they go on welfare. You know? ... Before outsiders came to Alaska, they were here because they wanted to be. They weren’t chasing money, or a job, like with the pipeline. So many came up here because of the big money. They did not contribute to our state, they did not have to pay taxes. So many of them came up here, made the big money, cursed the state, brought their own cigarettes and whatever they might need, and didn’t leave anything behind except a bad taste. Before outsiders came to Alaska, it was a wonderful way of life.