My parents, and other parents in surrounding villages, lived off the land. As a child growing up in a remote village of Mentasta, the land was good to us, the sky was good to us, and the creeks, lakes and rivers. It supplied us with all our needs. We respected the land and because of that the land gave back. We were not a lawless people. We had our Indian laws we followed. We knew when to hunt, when to fish. We knew to leave enough beaver for next year when trapping. We knew not to go after a mother when they have little duckling, and others that have small ones. We lived in our land and we shared it with each other.
My mother, Katie John, was a silent witness to the first wave of gold rush. And the deadly epidemics that swept through Alaska. Then, new laws on moose hunting, trapping, and fishing were put on us by the government, making my parents outlaws in their own land. Yet my parents still welcomed complete strangers into our home, Those that come up from the Lower 48 to try and make a living, in what they call the new land. My mother would make them feel like they were welcome by giving them moose skin gloves and mukluks. That was how we lived. That was part of our Indian law. We shared.
Sometimes we took moose and caribou "out of season," according to the new law that came to the land. It made us afraid. But we used every part of the animal, according to Indian Law. And we shared. We were not ignorant people who needed to be told how to manage our fish and wildlife. We lived with the land, and knew how to live with it, and knew the law. Our law.
No one ever asked us about Indian Law. Or how we do things. They start bossing us around in our own place. And if we don't do it their way, there is jail to face. We never brag about the animals we take. Or hang antlers on the wall. We cared for what the land gave, and we would share it, not hoard it away. That is our way. These are a few reasons my Mother Katie John fought so hard for her children, her village, her people in the State of Alaska. She fought for who we are as a people. She fought to make us proud for who we are, after we were taken away to boarding schools and beaten for speaking our language. Even after all that, she never became bitter. She still taught us to continue to give and share from our heart and not just take. She knew if love is not in this, it will not work.
The State of Alaska uses our ways to promote tourism, yet it has no real respect for our ways. We are real people, not just museum pieces. We are still here, trying to live the way we were raised. We are trying to do as our mother Katie John taught us. We are trying to act with love. State of Alaska, can you say the same?
Fred John Jr. is the son of the late Katie John, an Athabascan elder who sued both the state and the federal government to win recognition of traditional subsistence rights for her people.