Alaska Natives Killed: Murder at the Hunting Camp

The month was January. The year was 1970. The place was a hunting camp on the Kobuk river, 70 miles from Kiana, an Inupiaq Eskimo village thirty miles from the Arctic Circle. That time of the year, the sun rose a little before noon and set in the late afternoon. The weather was cold. Bitter cold. It was, however, an excellent time to go after caribou. These magnificent animals were a staple in the Inupiaq diet.


The Big Hunt

A 19-year-old young man named Norman Leroy Johnson — known as Butch — was up from Anchorage, visiting his father. Thinking it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, his dad arranged for Butch to take a trip into the Alaska interior. In fact, he was lucky enough to snag an invitation to a hunt. Butch was to accompany Freddy Jackson, an Inupiaq and friend of Butch’s father, by snow machine to the hunting camp. There, they would join two other hunters, Clarence Arnold and Oscar Henry.


But Butch, a neophyte, was thrown from the sled behind Jackson’s snow machine. Rather than go back for him, however, Freddy continued to chase the caribou herd they’d spotted. He didn’t want to lose sight of them. That was meat for the winter. The plan was to circle back for Butch once they shot the caribou.

Butch was plucky enough to set out by foot for the camp. Part of him feared they’d left him behind. By the time he reached the hunters, they were already cleaning and butchering a female caribou. She apparently had a calf in her womb. That sight shocked Butch, who would later relate his feelings to a psychologist:

That… this baby never had a chance, you see, and he thought that Freddy… was a little callous in not too caring and he had the same feeling of feeling sick to his stomach.

Dr. Barbara Ure, defense psychologist

Trouble After Dinner

Upon returning to camp, the men prepared dinner. During that time, another Native, Clarence Wood, stopped by the campsite. He stayed for about an hour, had dinner, and then left at about 7 p.m. Wood said that, while he was there, Norman lay on his bed, all huddled up, that he hardly said anything, but would answer when spoken to. Other than that, Wood did not notice anything unusual about Norman.

Caribou Hunting Tents, Alaska (copyright Bjorn Olson)

Sometime after Wood left the campsite, Jackson, Arnold, and Henry began making preparations for bed. Norman later told the state troopers that:

I got up to go to the bathroom and I went outside and I got my rifle and I just started firing into the tent.

Norman “Butch” Johnson.

Tip of the Hat to Robin Barefield for her great reporting on this story. And to the Supreme Court of Alaska in Johnson v. State.

Copyright Leland E. Hale (2022). All rights reserved.


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