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Athabascan elder Katie John, advocate for indigenous rights, dies

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Posted: Friday, May 31, 2013 11:45 am | Updated: 1:38 pm, Thu Jun 6, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Athabascan elder Katie John was known publicly for her determination and eventual success in fighting for indigenous subsistence rights, and by her large, extended family for her traditional teachings, humor, gentle spirit and loving ways.

John died early Friday morning with family members at her side at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She was 97 years old and resided at Mentasta Lake until shortly before her death.

“Katie John’s example will inspire generations to come,” said Alaska Federation of Native President Julie Kitka, in a statement. “Her name will be our rallying cry, to stand up for our subsistence rights, and to nurture our languages and traditions.”

When the state refused to allow John and Mentasta Village elders to put up a fishwheel at their family’s abandoned traditional fish camp, Batzulnetas, at the junction of Tanada Creek and the Copper River, they filed suit in 1985 in federal court and endured a long court battle over the landmark subsistence case.

Born in 1915, John was raised in the traditional manner, living off the land under the tutelage of her mother and grandmother.

In 2011, she was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and at the commencement ceremony, she spoke of that time.

“We had no pencil, no paper. We don’t know how to read. We used our head,” she said. “Everything my mother told me, my grandmother told me, it’s in my head.”

James Kari, a UAF linguistics professor emeritus, who worked with John on the Ahtna language, calls John “one of the great intellectuals of Native Alaska.”

“She would speak from her heart and from her memory about the Ahtna laws and traditions of her home area, the upper Copper River. Whenever she spoke in Ahtna about her language, history and beliefs, she would organize her thoughts meticulously and with great seriousness,” Kari said.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski described John’s persistence and determination in her cause  in a statement released Friday afternoon.

“Katie John was an Alaska icon who devoted her life to ensuring that her Ahtna people had the opportunity to carry on traditional subsistence fishing in their ancestral homeland. She was unafraid to challenge any bureaucrat standing between her Native people and their opportunity to fish, whether that was a State of Alaska that didn’t recognize that ANILCA’s rural preference included fishing or a National Park Ranger trying to tell her that she couldn’t fish from her ancestral village within the Wrangell-St Elias National Park.

Tanana Chiefs President Jerry Isaac, who is related to John, said the respected elder was known for hearty, friendly, happy disposition. “Everybody always loved her for that,” he said.

John was very knowledgeable about potlatches, considered a serious event in the upper Tanana and Copper River areas, and she always was firm and balanced as to what was to be achieved by the traditional event, Isaac said.

A consummate teacher, John was always willing to share her ancestral traditions.

“She was a great teacher, very patient,” said her granddaughter, Katherine Martin.

“When she started winning our rights on subsistence, I went with her, and traveled with her for five years straight around the state,” Martin said.

As they traveled back and forth to speaking engagements, John told her granddaughter many, many stories and about her own growing up in the early 20th century.                     

“I’ve gone to college and got my bachelor’s degree and work in the white economy, but my learning from her is the best schooling I ever got in my life,” Martin said.

John’s traditional background also played into her leadership role of fighting for subsistence rights.

“Katie was from a generation who believed, ‘I have the right to feed my family and that is all I’m trying to do, not break the law,’” Isaac said. “She fought for it, and she won.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich’s remarks in a statement Friday reflect John’s contribution.

“Alaska has lost a steadfast advocate for Native subsistence rights. From her fish camp on the Copper River, Katie John gave Alaska Natives across our state a voice to their long-sought protection of traditional hunting and fishing rights.”

John is remembered, by grandniece Tracy Charles Smith, of Fairbanks, as an “awesome loving kind woman.”

Smith’s grandmother, Doris Charles, also a plaintiff with John in the subsistence legal fight, and John grew up together.

“They had a really good relationship,” Smith said. “When my mother was getting ready to pass on (2002), Katie came, and they were reminiscing about playing together in the woods and my grandma packing Katie around.”

“As Alaska Natives we owe her a lot for her fight for subsistence rights,” Smith said. “She was loved and she’ll be missed.”

A similar emotion was expressed by Gulkana Chief Fred Ewan Friday morning in a conversation with Kari.

Ewan said, “We lost the best woman we ever had.”

John and her husband, Chief Fred John, who died in 2000, raised 14 children and six foster children together.

She leaves behind approximately 250 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

John Jr. describes his mother as being a giver all of her life, who loved people and gave freely of her time and care.

“When people would come by, she would give each one an individual hug and make you feel very special,” he said.

“When she got old, it all came back to her. It was a full circle,” he said.

The family was gathering Friday and making funeral plans to be announced at a later date.

“We’re going to miss her,” John Jr. said. “She taught us stories of our culture and history. She was a big part of our lives. Now her history belongs to the public, to the people.”

Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.

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