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Our View: Katie John staked a just claim

Katie John wanted to live, wanted her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to live. And by live, Katie John meant live and hunt and trap and fish as her people had done as far back as anyone could remember.

Alaska has long fought over subsistence rights -- rural versus urban, Native versus non-Native, state Supreme Court ruling versus federal law. Add to the mix battles over tribal sovereignty, social and cultural upheaval, political calculations. What you have is a fight that has long defied resolution.

Katie John kept it simple, profoundly so. She was the lead plaintiff in a 1985 suit against the federal government that sought recognition of her and her people's rights to fish as they always had at Batzulnetas -- "Roasted Salmon Place" -- at the confluence of the Tanada Creek and the Copper River, where, she said, the salmon were the best. Her suit followed the state's refusal to let her fish there as part of its salmon management program. The old camp had been idle since 1964.

Armed with lawyers, Katie John took on the state, took on the feds. And she won.

A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2001 proved final. The state, under then-Gov. Tony Knowles, planned to appeal the court's decision, which involved asserting federal control over subsistence management of the state's navigable waters. Knowles visited Katie John at her fish camp that July. John, in an interview with writer Judy Ferguson, recounted the visit.

"When he arrived, I pointed: 'You see that little creek down the hill? That's where fish come up. That's-a my life. My daddy caught fish there with a trap. That's where I was raised and where I raised my kids. That's-a my life."

That August, Knowles decided not to appeal the court's ruling. That left the feds managing subsistence where the state used to manage it, a result that Knowles hadn't sought, and a result also due to the state Legislature's failure to put a subsistence amendment to the state constitution before voters. But Knowles said he did not want to pursue a course that was wrong, that could deny traditional subsistence rights to Katie John and other Alaska Natives.

Even some of those who respected Katie John suspected that she was used, or at least caught up, by those with their own agendas. They missed the point and underestimated the woman. Katie John became a hero among Alaska Natives for her relentless pursuit of her birthright -- and that of those who would follow. Subsistence remains contentious. But Katie John staked a just claim.

In paying her respects, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Friday she fears that with the loss of Alaska's culture bearers, Alaska is losing some of its soul. Katie John knew in her bones that if she didn't take a stand, there would be no culture to bear. She understood that it wasn't just the right to salmon but the right to a way of life -- to survival as a people -- that she sought. Katie John strengthened Alaska's soul.