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Katie John started life in 1915 near Slana, grew up in the Native Village of Baltzulneta, location of a traditional fish camp, and was raised in the traditional way. Describing how she learned to live off the land from her mother and grandmother, she said: “We had no pencil, no paper. We don’t know how to read. We used our head. Everything my mother told me, my grandmother told me, it’s in my head.” She first learned to speak English at the age of 14 when she was employed in the Nabesna Mine. She married Mentasta traditional chief Fred John, Sr. at the age of 16 and together they raised 14 children and six foster children, living a subsistence lifestyle. In 1932 they moved to Mentasta which, in the late 1950s, finally opened a school, allowing their children to return from the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ boarding school in Wrangell to get an education at home. John raised each child to know how to live off the land and in the traditional culture. She was a cultural leader in the Ahtna Athabascan language and, in addition to teaching her own children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, in later life John taught the language in the Mentasta school. In the late 1970s she helped create the first written alphabet for the language and subsequently recorded pronunciation guides in her voice to help teach and preserve the language. While widely recognized for her leadership in teaching the Ahtna Athabascan cultural traditions and values, John is best known for demanding, and winning subsistence rights for Alaska’s Native peoples.
Her long life, spanning 97 years, carried her from a traditional Native village life to the modern western lifestyle, from travel by foot to travel by plane, from using dogs to carry loads to riding in cars and from being educated only in traditional ways and in traditional knowledge, to being awarded an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in 2011. Throughout these amazing changes during her lifetime, subsistence remained her core value: as a child; as a parent raising 20 children with her husband; as a activist willing to initiate legal action to regain a right and as a teacher of the culture she wished to pass on to her descendants.
In 1984 John and Doris Charles requested the Alaska State Board of Fisheries, which 20 years earlier had closed subsistence fishing, to again permit the former residents of the now-abandoned Native village of Baltzulneta to subsistence fish. The Board’s rejection of that request set the stage for the long-running, complex and convoluted “Katie John case”, litigated by the Native American Rights Fund, beginning in 1985 and continuing to this day. John was willing to stand up for her belief that she had the right to live a subsistence lifestyle as previous generations had and to pass that right on to her descendants. Her willingness to speak “truth to power” forced the federal government to live up to its responsibilities, imposed by Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, to preserve and protect the subsistence rights of Alaska Natives on federal lands and waters. It has forced the State of Alaska to cede the management of subsistence uses of Alaska’s wildlife and fish on federal lands to the federal government. One pivotal event in this long-running legal battle occurred when Gov. Tony Knowles traveled to meet John in person at her fish camp at Baltzulneta before making a decision as to whether the State should appeal a decision considered adverse. The governor commented subsequently on why, based on that visit, he decided the state should not appeal: “I learned more that day than is written in all the boxes of legal briefs in this long-lasting court battle. I understand the strength, core and values that subsistence gives to Katie John’s family, and to the thousands of similar families…I know—we all know—that what Katie John does is not wrong. It is right—right for her, right for the village.”
Regarded by many as a matriarch, culture bearer and respected elder of the Ahtna Athabascan peoples, John was also to her many descendants (at least 250 at the time of death), a grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great grandmother. In that personal role one granddaughter described her as being firm but loving and caring, with an awesome sense of humor, always ready to learn new things and someone who made every one of her descendants feel special and loved. Heather Kendall-Miller, the NARF attorney who represented her throughout the “Katie John case”, summarized John’s far-reaching impact: “It has been an honor and privilege for all of us at NARF to have worked with such a great and wonderful matriarch. She is an inspiration to all Native peoples and to all people who believe in right and justice.”
John was honored in 2011 by the University of Alaska Fairbanks when it awarded her an honorary doctorate in laws for her work with the Ahtna Athabascan language and her advocacy for Native subsistence rights. John was also honored by the Alaska Federation of Natives at its 2013 conference when the Hunter and Gathers Award was re-named the Katie John Hunter-Fisher Award.
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/vsYR7RBzHOI
Alaska Subsistence: a NPS Management History (Chapt. 9), http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/norris1/chap9a.htm
Katie John- Her Life and Legacy, Native American Rights Fund, Current Cases & Projects, Katie John v. Norton, http://www.narf.org/cases/katiejohn.html
Athabascan elder Katie John receives honorary doctorate, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 14, 2011Alaska mourns passing of elder
Katie John, Juneau Empire Staff Report, June 2, 2013. Fishing Rights, Language and Culture Advocate, Katie John, Walks On, Indian
Country Today Media Network.com, 6/4/13. Alaska and AFN at loggerheads in a case pitting state sovereignty against subsistence,
Alaska Dispatch, Nov. 5, 2013. Statement of Senator Murkowski Remembering Katie John