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Hundreds pay respects to Katie John at Anchorage memorial

  • Author: Sean Doogan
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published June 5, 2013

Katie John, noted Ahtna Athabascan elder and Alaska icon, passed away on May 31. She was 97 years old. Three days later, more than 450 people filed into the Anchorage Baptist Temple to remember her legacy.

Many of those who gathered Wednesday afternoon may not have known John personally. Some were there to pay their respects to the little woman from Mentasta Lake who stood up tall against the government, and won. Others were there to remember a woman whose influence, like the Copper River she so loved, cut an indelible ribbon through Alaska.

Most everyone, though, was there to celebrate the beauty of a life well-lived.

"She is everyone's grandmother," said Georgianna Lincoln, who delivered John's eulogy.

A growing legacy

John was famous for her family, and her smile. Both were present at the Wednesday afternoon memorial in Alaska's largest city, 235 miles southwest of her home. A black-and-white portrait hung, frozen on a large television screen near the front of the church.

"Grandma has influenced so many people from so many different cultures, it is really quite amazing," said Allen John, Katie's great-grandson. Allen, unlike his famous ancestor, grew up in Anchorage. "I'm a city kid," he said.

But his great-grandmother's influence, if not her angling skills, remains a major part of his life. "As a child, I helped build the first fish wheel at Batzulnetas, after it was re-opened to fishing," Allen said. "But, she was always a better fisherman than me."

Joyful family meetings

Many in the crowd were descendants of Katie herself. John was married to her husband, Fred John Sr., for 70 years. Together the couple had 16 children, and adopted another four. Blood or bond, it did not matter to Katie.

"I used to tell my sisters and brothers, 'She got stuck with you. She chose me,'" said Yvonne Echohawk, an adopted child, who also was the officiating pastor for the service. Add to her 20 kids, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren, and you find John was the matriarch for more than 250 immediate descendants -- some of whom met for the first time at Wednesday's Anchorage memorial service.

They shared uncertain or puzzled glances, followed by a sudden realization of remembrance. Hugs and tears followed, as cousins and relatives who barely knew each other became reacquainted at their grandmother's memorial. But the tears were almost always washed away by laughter.

Katie John had a legendary sense of humor. Almost every picture that flashed on the television screen to end the memorial service showed a joyous, and happy woman -- one with a quick smile, and an even more immediate wit. "When I introduced her to my son, her great-great-grandson, Robert for the first time," joked Suraiya John, "she laughed and told me, 'There's too many Johns for me to remember now!'"

"Katie John always told us to live life beautifully, to never be bitter," said Echohawk. "She always said bitterness would destroy you."

Becoming an Alaskan legend

Katie John is most famous for suing the state over subsistence fishing access. In 1964, the state shut down fishing at her fish camp, located in the abandoned village of Batzulnetas. Batzulnetas sits along the Copper River and inside the boundaries of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. John and another villager sued the state in federal court in 1984. After more than a decade and-a-half of court battles, in 2001, then-Gov. Tony Knowles made the trip to Mentasta Lake to speak with John. A month later, the state dropped its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The subsistence regulations John helped change have been the law of the land ever since in navigable waters of Alaska that are inside federal land.

"She was a woman with a warrior's spirit. She had a backbone of steel and the courage to fight for the rights of her children," Knowles said in a letter read, on his behalf, at the Wednesday memorial service.

In the 1950s John started the first school in her home village of Mentasta Lake, after having to send too many of her offspring to regional boarding schools. She also began teaching the Ahtna dialect of the Athabascan Language, and assisted in creating its first-ever written alphabet. In 2011, she was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Global respects

Many people were drawn to the Anchorage memorial service to celebrate the rural life of an Athabascan elder. The Mexican Consular General of Alaska was there. A group of native Hawaiians flew in to show their solemn respect for the little grandmother they never met. A New Zealand native, the son-in-law of Katie's own daughter, showed her global reach when he sang the opening prayer in his native, Maori tongue.

"I think her life appealed to so many because she was willing to stand up for what she believed in, against all-odds," said Bob Baker, an ABT associate pastor.

Katie John will be known for a lot of things. The lawsuits. The fight for indigenous fishing rights, the preservation of her native language. But for the hundreds gathered in Anchorage, on Wednesday, she was simply, "Grandma Katie."

A wholly Alaskan life

Katie John lived almost all of her 97 years sustaining her family with the fruits of the land around her. Despite having 20 kids, and living in a tiny village with few economic opportunities, the John family said it managed to feed itself through subsistence living, never applying for welfare, even though they did, at times, qualify for state and federal aid.

Katie John stood up for what she most cherished, her family remembers, but was never eager to seek the limelight. "I never wanted to do it, but I was the only one who could," she said in 1999 -- referring to her court fight over subsistence fishing rights.

There are some who believe she fought for what was right. Others say the effects of her court case were more far-reaching and intruded on the state's rights too much. Few people however, friend or foe, would claim she lived anything other than a truly "Alaskan" life -- a beautiful life, and one that, even after her passing, ebbs and flows through the state, like the waters on which she grew up.

A funeral service for Katie John is being planned for Saturday, June 8, at 1 p.m. at the Mentasta Lake Native Village. Her great-grandson Allen estimates as many as 3,500 people could be expected to show up. The service is open to the public.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com

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