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Fred John's walk for grandmother carries worthwhile message for indigenous rights

Judy Ferguson
A drum heralds Fred John's arrival into Anchorage.
Illustration Samuel Johns
Fred John with a banner of the original plaintiffs of the Katie John case: Doris Charles, founder of Dot Lake, Gene Henry and Katie John, all originally from Batzulnetas. Banner says, “Let us govern our lands and waters with the wisdom of our ancestors.” Dot Lake, May 1 2014
Courtesy Judy Ferguson
Emma Northway, mother of 12 and the oldest living person in the Upper Tanana, hugging Fred John on her 99th birthday, Tanacross.
Courtesy Genevieve John
After a blessed send-off by supporters, Fred John began his month-long walk to Anchorage, departing Dot Lake for Mentasta and the Tok Cutoff. Left to right: Jacob Luke, Sonny Luke, Fred John, Mary Lou Paul and Clyde Charles.
Courtesy Judy Ferguson

On May 1, 2014, coincidentally on the day the Interior Department announced it would consider taking Alaska tribal land into trust, Fred John, 71, of Delta Junction began his month-long walk to support the indigenous use of the land. Fred is a son of Katie John who was the late lead plaintiff in a series of lawsuits that were aimed at ensuring Alaska Native fishing and indigenous rights.

My name is Judy Ferguson. My writing was born out of my life in the Bush. In 1968 I married trapper, big game guide and Delta’s Forest Warden, Reb Ferguson. Chief Andrew Isaac and his wife Maggie Isaac and Abraham and Eva Luke of Dot Lake frequently came to Big Delta, where we lived. They talked about their lives from the early 1900s from Mansfield Lake, Sand Creek through the Tanana and Goodpaster rivers.

About 1976 or '77, Katie John’s son Fred John Jr. and his wife, Linnea John, moved from Mentasta village to Delta.

Together, we lived the changes in Alaska from pre-pipeline days, followed by the Alaska Native Land Claims Act (ANCSA) and its follow-up, the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA), both of which changed Alaska forever.

Course material for Federal Indian Law for Alaska Tribes offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Interior-Aleutians Campus clarifies the history we lived:

In 1971 Congress extinguished aboriginal hunting and fishing rights through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) without developing provisions for adequately protecting subsistence in the Act…Congress expected that the State of Alaska and the Secretary of Interior would somehow continue to protect Alaska Native hunting and fishing needs and requirements.

When this did not happen:

A subsistence use priority was given to rural Alaskans in Title VIII of ANILCA rather than to Alaska Natives because the State of Alaska objected to a Native preference. The State opened subsistence to all Alaskans, creating a conflict with the rural priority granted through Title VIII of ANILCA. …

Continuing:

The State returned to opening subsistence to all Alaskans, creating a conflict with the rural priority granted through Title VIII of ANILCA. …

Under ANILCA:

Originally, the federal management only applied to hunting and not to fishing. Native Elders brought a suit, claiming that navigable waters should be covered, and the federal courts sided with them in Katie John, et al. v. U.S.

After Governor Sean Parnell saluted Katie John at last year's Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) convention in Fairbanks in November, Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty asked the Supreme Court to review a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the federal government controls subsistence hunting and fishing on navigable waters owned by the state that are adjacent to and within federal land. However the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal with the state responding by saying they would continue to pursue the issue.

With recent conflicts regarding the Katie John case and to bring attention to the tribal need to govern indigenous land, Fred John decided to begin a month-long walk to Anchorage, stopping at villages along the way.

On May 1, Fred John, family and supporters from Delta Junction and Tanacross -- with Dot Lake -- gathered to help begin Fred’s quest. After everyone danced, Fred thanked the village of Dot Lake for taking care of his family one winter long ago and he saluted Dot Lake founder, Doris Charles, and Gene Henry for fighting the subsistence battle with his mother, Katie John. He explained how he’d grown up ashamed and stripped of his culture and language. He began to heal as his children, half-white and half-Ahtna Athabascan, began growing up.

On May 1 at Dot Lake before beginning his walk, Fred John explained:

During the 1950's, when I was taken from my Mentasta home and sent to boarding school, I was called number 77. I hated myself because of who I was and because of the face that always looked back at me in the mirror. I learned from others that I would never be anything worthwhile, so I decided to change that.

I learned the language they taught me; I went to the schools they sent me. I played their sports. I even married the blonde who looked like the cover models. I did my best to fit in. Then came my kids....

One after another they came, till there were five little brown faces that filled my two-story house with its plumbing and its refrigerator full of groceries. They looked like me. I loved them. I began to want to love myself when I looked – in my own mirror.

Through them, I began to accept who I was and who I was always going to be, an Indian. My kids were confident and proud; I became confident and proud. They wanted to learn where they came from. I began to teach them. As my long ago memories began to surface, I began to heal.

I slowly began to realize that there was one person who, all along, had known my struggles, the gut-wrenching fear, sadness and anger I carried: my wife, Linnea. She knew and she watched. She waited until one day I could journey on my own and share my story.

I am Fred John Jr. I am part of the hidden secrets of the 49th state, the last of the US attempts to assimilate the owners of this land. I am no longer scared. I have regained my voice. I want to share my story.

After speaking, Fred, accompanied by his family and friends, left Dot Lake and turned down the Alaska Highway. (His brother Harry John and sister-in-law Diane have been with Fred every step of the way.)

On day two, at the second of many rich visits with the highway villages, the oldest living person in the upper Tanana, a friend of Katie John’s, 99-year-old Emma Northway met Fred in her wheelchair and accompanied him on his last mile into Tanacross. That evening Fred and Emma celebrated her birthday party in the community hall.

On May 4, Fred walked 19 miles and stopped seven miles past Tok. As he prepared to continue May 5 for pushing on to Mentasta, he messaged, “Feet blistered but I am taking care of them. Tell Facebook followers on Walk for Tsucde that I am doing okay so far.”

Two weeks later on May 18, Fred and Harry had visited at Dot Lake, Tanacross, Tok, Mentasta, Chistochina, Gakona, Gulkana, Glennallen, and by May 24, Chickaloon.

Fred is planning to arrive in Anchorage on May 31, the annual first day that Ahtna shareholders put in their fishwheels. The date also celebrates Bill No. 133, "An Act establishing May 31 of each year as Katie John Day." Although the bill is still moving through the Legislature, the John family will celebrate the first unofficial Katie John Day.  All this comes just before Anchorage’s first hosting of the National Congress of American Indians conference, June 8-11.

On May 31 from the Glenn highway, Fred will walk down Muldoon and Tudor to the Alaska Native Medical Center campus, ending his month-long walk. Please see the Facebook page, Walk for Tsucde, and the website.

While he was still 10 days away from his goal, Fred messaged, “Tonight we are camped at Caribou Creek (near a tall outcrop with a knob on its top) where a woman and her baby on her back were turned to stone. She was warned not to look back at her own country but she wanted one last look. She and her baby remind us how much our land and people mean to us. She is still there -- longing for it.”

Judy Ferguson, a 45-year Big Delta resident, is the author of "Windows to the Land, An Alaska Native Story, Volume I: Alaska Native Land Claims Trailblazers," "Bridges to Statehood," "Delta histories, Parallel Destinies and Blue Hills," and children’s books, "Alaska’s Secret Door," "Alaska’s Little Chief" and "Alaska’s First People."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.