Katie John’s storied journey, in the place she loved so much, came to an end after almost 100 years. John passed away Friday morning at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She was 97, and had been battling infection following several surgeries. Despite her age and recent health, her passing came as a shock to her family.
"She had undergone a series of surgeries to repair an aneurysm, and was recovering, we thought, from the latest round of surgeries last night, when things suddenly took a turn for the worse,” said Kathryn Martin, John’s granddaughter and personal assistant.
In many ways, John’s legacy will live on long after her death.
“Katie said she had more than 350 descendants,” said Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) who knew John for decades.
Kendall-Miller had represented John since NARF helped the Ahtna elder from Mentasta Lake file a federal lawsuit in 1984 -- challenging a state-imposed subsistence fishing closure. That lawsuit, Katie John et al. v. the United States of America, is known throughout Alaska simply as “the Katie John case.”
John sued the state after being denied access to a fishing camp, located inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which had last been used by her tribe some 20 years earlier, before 1964, when the state of Alaska closed off subsistence fishing there. She and the other plaintiffs ultimately prevailed in 1994, and the ruling opened all federal waters in Alaska to management priority for rural and Alaska Native residents for subsistence use.
At the time of her death, in fact, John and NARF were awaiting another decision on the issue at the heart of the case, hoping it would lead to the opening of all state waters to the subsistence fishing regulations spelled out in the Alaska Native Interest Land Claims Act (ANILCA) and federal regulations.
"We expect a decision on that within weeks, or even days,” said Kendall-Miller.
More than a defender of rights
Katie John’s influence spreads much farther across Alaska than just her work advocating for subsistence rights. She was a staunch defender of her culture, her language, and advocate for keeping Native ways of life alive.
John was given an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in 2011, for her work on the court case, but also for helping to preserve and spread the language of her childhood, Ahtna Athabascan, which the Alaska Native Language Center at UAF estimates to be currently spoken by 80 people.
In the early 1970s, John was instrumental in developing the first alphabet for the then unwritten language of the Copper River valley in Southcentral Alaska, and for collaborating on the first Ahtna Noun Dictionary and pronunciation guide. She began her efforts to teach her language and culture around the same time at the local school in Mentasta Lake -- a village of about 140 people -- 100 miles northeast of Glenallen, and her voice lives on in recorded pronunciation guides and other materials available to teach the Ahtna language.
That legacy will help ensure Ahtna does not fade out of lived life, to be spoken mostly by linguists, as the Eyak language was in danger of when its last fluent speaker passed away in 2008.
"Her work is allowing Ahtna youths to rediscover their language, and courses are still being taught in it at the local school,” said Martin.
Quiet poetic influence
She was matriarch, whose life’s mission was to protect her way of life and pass it on to her grandchildren. That way of life is intimately connected to the land, and related to fishing, sharing, and caring for others,” said Kendall-Miller.
Katie John was known for the way she had of speaking to people. One famous example: A 2001 visit by then-Gov. Tony Knowles to her fish camp.
Knowles was considering asking the court for a delay in anticipation of the state’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the Katie John ruling.
Knowles flew to Tanacross, from Fairbanks in July of that year. From there, the governor would drive the 50 miles to Mentasta Lake and take an ATV the remaining few miles to John’s home, near the banks of the Copper River. It was the first time the governor had met John.
After a few hours of listening to her, his resolve began to change,” said Kendall-Miller, who was herself present at the meeting. “She just had a way of speaking to people, a soft, yet eloquent way of describing why her way of life was so important to her and her people.”
After the trip and summit with John, Knowles said, “You feel it in your heart that what she is doing (living a subsistence lifestyle) is something we should be fighting for and protecting.”
A month later, the state, at Knowles's behest, dropped its request to have the lower courts' decision overturned by the Supreme Court. It has remained the law, at least in federal waters, ever since.
While the history books will remember John most for her long fight for subsistence fishing, her work on the Ahtna language, and her involvement with the Alaska Federation of Natives, her family chooses to reflect on John’s more personal lessons.
"She is famous for fighting for fishing rights, but her real contribution was what she taught us,” said Martin when reached by phone Friday afternoon. “Honesty, trust, love, and forgiveness – those are the things that really matter.”
”Grandma’s teachings will always be with us. We pray for her but don’t have to tell her where to go. She’s already there, in heaven,” said Martin.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com