FAIRBANKS -- Athabascan elder Katie John has many titles -- the ones most frequently used are auntie and grandma. Now she can add another one to the list: doctor.
The 95-year-old Athabascan elder from Mentasta Lake, an icon in the Alaska Native community, received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks on May 14 and was honored at a reception by the Interior-Aleutians Campus.
"Great Britain has its queen, we have our Katie John," said Bernice Joseph, vice chancellor of the College of Rural and Community Development.
John is known throughout the state as the person whose name is on a landmark subsistence case and for her advocacy of indigenous rights. She is a longtime teacher of culture and language and helped create the Ahtna alphabet. John, with her husband, Mentasta Traditional Chief Fred John, raised 14 children and six foster children. They have 211 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, noted Kathryn Martin, one of Katie John's grandchildren, who is graduating this spring.
Joseph said a meeting between then-Gov. Tony Knowles and John in 2001 was a defining moment in a decades-long legal battle over control of subsistence hunting and fishing in Alaska.
"I wish I could have been a fly on the wall," Joseph said. "We honor you, Katie, for standing up for all of us, for our children and grandchildren."
In 1990, John and the state filed separate lawsuits against the federal government over which entity had control over fishing in Alaska's navigable waters. John was fighting to keep her family's fish camp at Batzulnetas at the junction of Tanada Creek and the Copper River. In 2001, then-Gov. Tony Knowles had to decide whether the state would appeal a circuit court ruling, which upheld federal management of fisheries in navigable waters running through federal land, to the U.S. Supreme Court. He traveled to the Upper Copper River to meet with John at her fish camp.
On May 14, Martin recalled stories about that meeting, saying John told the governor simply that "This creek right here is where I come from."
From her seat at the water's edge, John, who was born in Slana in 1915, pointed out where her family hunted moose, sheep, caribou and picked berries.
Knowles returned to Juneau and refused to appeal the ruling. It was a watershed moment for Alaska subsistence users.
John, who arrived at the reception in a wheelchair, spoke strongly of her childhood and how she learned to live off the land from her mother and grandmother.
"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."
The reception was part family reunion, with more than two dozen of John's direct descendants in attendance, including many dressed in traditional regalia as part of the Ahtna Dancers, who opened and closed the reception.
Also in attendance were fellow "wisdom bearers," elders Howard Luke and Poldine Carlo, who received honorary doctorates in 1996 and 2001, respectively,
The reception also honored the other graduates of the Interior Aleutians Campus, which will award 41 certificates and associates degrees, 13 occupational endorsements and a bachelor's degree at today's graduation ceremonies.
Jessie David of Allakaket earned the bachelor's degree, noting that she did so after spending 30 years as a teacher's aide. She said her achievement at age 54 shows "it can be done, and anyone can do it."