Alaska News

She recalls the past, fights for the future

This story was originally published on Sept. 25, 1994.

ALONG THE COPPER RIVER -- Katie John was sitting on a blanket in the grass, surrounded by daughters and grandchildren, reaching into the past.

"My mother told me about when the white people come, " she said in a voice strongly tinged with a near-extinct dialect of Athabascan. "Hundreds of 'em come to country here. Gold. Indians don't know nothing about gold. But white people all over. My mom said they come in like a bunch of caribou."

This grassy clearing in the woods is a summer fish camp now, but there used to be an Ahtna Indian settlement here. Batzulnetas. "Roasted Salmon Place." Katie John, who turns 79 years old in October, grew up here.

There's nothing to mark it, but this patch of land and river has become ground-zero in Alaska's long, tortured battle over subsistence hunting and fishing rights.

For years now, Katie John has been in the thick of it. Her lawsuit to reopen the Copper River to subsistence fishing at Batzulnetas (pronounced BAT-zull-NEAT-us) became a landmark case that is reshaping government policies and could soon change the way millions of salmon are divvied up each year among subsistence, commercial and sport fishermen throughout Alaska.

As a great-grandmother who has spent most of her life raising kids and living the traditional subsistence life in the Copper River headwaters, Katie John seems like an unlikely political activist.


But the Ahtnas of the Upper Copper River are no strangers to conflict, and her tangles with government agencies in some ways are just the latest turn in a story that began two hundred years ago.

As she sat in the grass at Batzulnetas on a cool evening in late July, Katie John saw nuggets of that history everywhere.

Look over in those woods, she said. That's where the Ahtnas from Batzulnetas and another nearby settlement killed a group of Russians who made their way up the Copper River in the late 1700s. The attack, documented by historians, apparently came in retaliation for mistreatment of an Ahtna chief.

Katie John motioned toward the woods downriver. That's where her mother and other Batzulnetas children watched, amazed, as a red-haired man and two white companions approached their village through the woods. It was 1885 and the red-haired man was Lt. Henry T. Allen, the first American to explore the Copper, Tanana and Yukon rivers.

The children had never seen a white person, and neither had their parents. But they'd heard stories about the Russians. They wondered, said Katie John, if the men were coming to kill them.

"They never seen nobody with red hair before, " she said. "My mom said they wonder why that man wore fox hat in summertime. But that Lt. Allen, he's a pretty good man. He treat them good."

Allen's journal describes finding a near-starving band of Natives on the Copper waiting for the first salmon of the summer to come in, subsisting on roots and rabbits.

Within a decade, gold was discovered nearby at Nabesna and along the Yukon River to the north and east. By the turn of the century, thousands of immigrants were pouring into the country.

The Ahtnas, at least the younger ones, learned English. Some took cash jobs. The government built schools, and churches sent missionaries to convert the Natives. Roads sliced through the wilderness, connecting the region with the rest of the world. The small Native camps were abandoned for larger villages.

Sometime in the 1930s, Katie John remembers, the first game warden showed up in the Copper River headwaters country. He came right here to Batzulnetas, she said. He was interested, she said, in whether her father and brother had killed a moose out of season.

And that, to Katie John, was when the trouble began.


Sixty years later, Katie John and her battles with state and federal fish and wildlife authorities have made her famous in Alaska legal, political and fishing circles.

It started out simply.

In 1964, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shut down subsistence fishing at Batzulnetas and other upriver fish camps. The idea was to protect salmon stocks on the Copper, one of North America's most productive and valuable sockeye fisheries.

Batzulnetas was abandoned. Twenty years passed. Then Katie John and other villagers from the area petitioned to reopen fishing at Batzulnetas, which by this time was part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Officials turned the villagers down.

Katie John sued.


Within a few years, Katie John et al. vs. the United States of America evolved into the most important and complicated subsistence-rights case in Alaska.

U.S. District Judge Russel Holland ruled in John's favor this past spring. He decided that state officials were unfairly denying her and other villagers subsistence rights not just at Batzulnetas, but across Alaska.

If Holland's ruling is upheld by the federal appeals court, Alaska government will lose the legal authority to control subsistence fishing on all navigable waters for the first time since statehood. The federal government will gain broad new powers to regulate not just subsistence, but commercial and sport catches.

The case has generated tens of thousands of pages of legal documents, and Holland's ruling provides the legal underpinning for a proposed federal subsistence bureaucracy that will cost as much as $40 million. The Katie John suit has turned into a legal battleground over everything from Native sovereignty to state's rights to federal water law. And it's not over. Several western states, including California and Arizona, have joined the state of Alaska in the appeal, concerned about the precedent of the federal takeover of navigable waters.

Through it all, said Katie John as she sat at fish camp this summer, her goal has remained constant. She just wants to fish at Batzulnetas, she said, and wants her grandchildren to be able to fish here too.

"We're Indian people and I don't like park rangers or game wardens coming in here telling us what to do like they own everything, " she said. "That's what I tell 'em. We got Indian laws and it's not like white man's laws. People like my daddy, they take care of their fish and their meat, everything, and nobody tells them what to do except chief.

"I don't want nobody coming here bossing me around and telling me what to do on our land. Our own land. That makes me mad."



Katie John lives now in Mentasta Lake, a log-cabin settlement of about 80 people just off the highway between Tok and Glennallen. The village sits six miles down a gravel road. A big billboard near the highway informs visitors that they're entering "Indian Country."

She is the matriarch of the village and its leader. She is related to virtually everyone, either by birth or marriage. She had 14 children and by now has lost track of all the grandkids -- she guesses somewhere between 60 and 70, with another 30 or 40 great-grandchildren.

"When I went to Mentasta this summer, " said John's lawyer, Bob Anderson of the Native American Rights Fund, "it seemed like practically everyone I met said, 'You represent my grandmother."'

Stout and muscular, her silver and black hair pulled back, she talks with a heavy, almost Scottish-sounding lilt. After years of subsistence living, her age has begun to show a bit. "I'm an old woman now, I'll be gone pretty soon, " she says. She's had to give up moose hunting, for one thing. The last time she went was two years ago, at age 76, right before her triple-bypass surgery.

Like a shrinking number of other Native elders around the state, she is the product of another time -- the one right before white people showed up in the Alaska outback. She prefers talking in the Upper Ahtna dialect, although as time passes there are fewer and fewer people to talk with. To some of her grandkids, who grew up with Fruit Loops and Game Boy, she seems ancient.

The gold rush was well under way and white people had already flooded into the region by the time Katie John was born, but she was raised the old way, by parents who moved seasonally among three settlements. Her father, Sanford Charlie, who died in the 1940s, was the last chief of Batzulnetas. (Like the 16,000-foot Mount Sanford, which towers over the Copper River headwaters, he was named by the blue-blooded Lt. Allen after his great-grandfather back in the States.)

Katie didn't learn English until she went to work in the gold camps as a teen-ager.

In the early 1980s, linguist James Kari from the University of Alaska Fairbanks spent time around Mentasta Lake collecting Upper Ahtna oral histories for a book, "The Headwaters People Country."

Many of the stories and most of the translations for the book came from Katie John -- legends like the story of the Cet'aenn, or "tailed ones, " human-like animals that supposedly lived in dens around Batzulnetas and terrorized humans; tales about the Upper Ahtna chiefs through the years; stories of battles with the Russians and downriver Natives.

She married Fred John, an Ahtna from another village, and like others, settled in Mentasta Lake when a school opened and roads were built in the area. Their kids grew up with English.

Batzulnetas was used less and less, and after fishing was banned there in the 1960s, the place was mostly abandoned. But it remained in Katie John's mind for the next 20 years.



"That place, Batzulnetas, got really good fish, " said Katie John. "We used to have the best fish of anybody else. That's what we used to think about. Really big fish and they're rich. Different from up Mentasta. That's why I always want to go back there."

Batzulnetas was the perfect location for a fish camp at the confluence of a clearwater stream, Tanada Creek, and the swift, silty Copper River. A run of sockeye salmon move up Tanada Creek and spawn in a series of lakes a few miles away.

The location is also why biologists sought to prohibit fishing.

The Tanada Creek run is one of more than 120 sockeye salmon stocks that ascend the Copper each summer. The fish enter the river together, then one by one, they split off to migrate up tributaries, like cars exiting a freeway. Biologists call these tributaries "terminal streams, " because they are where the salmon end up; Tanada Creek is the last one on the Copper River system.

If your timing is right, fishing a terminal stream can be extraordinarily efficient, with huge schools of fish clogging the creek. But if too many fish are taken from one stream, it can be disastrous to the run. A single fish can lay thousands of eggs. Fisheries managers through the years have tried to encourage catches in the main channel of the river or at its mouth, where fishermen are likely to catch a mixture of stocks.

In the 1960s, with Alaska's population rising and new roads being built, the state began limiting fishing on some terminal streams accessible by road including Tanada Creek and others off the Upper Copper. A hundred years earlier, the Ahtnas had the fish to themselves; now there was a commercial fleet at the river's mouth, dipnetters and sport fishermen, a growing population of Natives and other rural subsistence fishermen in the area.


"People were fishing anywhere they could put a fish wheel or a net, " said Ken Roberson, a retired state fisheries biologist who spent 24 years working on the Copper River.

There was no protest of the closure from Natives in the area at first. But as time passed, Katie John said, she began thinking more about Batzulnetas. She and another Mentasta Lake elder, Doris Charles, began talking about going back.

In 1984, Katie John and Doris Charles went to Fairbanks to try to persuade the Board of Fisheries to reopen the fishery. They were turned down. Board members suggested they fish downstream, at Slana, Chistochina, even at Chitina, where subsistence was allowed. Katie John didn't like that idea.

"I don't want to be on somebody else's land, " she said. "I like to do my fishing on my own land right there."

About this time, the Native American Rights Fund, a Colorado-based legal advocacy group, was opening an office in Anchorage and lawyers there heard about Katie John. In 1985, NARF lawyer Bob Anderson, an Ojibwa Indian from Minnesota, filed a lawsuit on behalf of John and Charles, arguing they and other Batzulnetas descendants had the right to return to Batzulnetas, where the two women have allotments of land surrounded by parkland.

The state refused to open the fishery, suggesting again that the villagers fish downstream. The villagers and their lawyer dug in, insisting they had the right not merely to catch salmon, but to do so at Batzulnetas.

The case forced a question: Should subsistence rights go beyond simple access to fish? Should it include the right to fish in specific places?


A federal judge eventually issued an injunction in John's favor, opening a fishery at Batzulnetas up to 1,000 red salmon each year. But in 1989, before the order could take effect, the state law giving subsistence rights to rural Alaskans like Katie John was struck down by the state Supreme Court. Federal agencies refused to enforce the order by claiming jurisdiction over Alaska rivers and the fish in them.

John's lawyers filed another suit, this one against the federal government. They argued that Washington had a duty to step in and guarantee to John and other villagers subsistence rights granted by the 1980 Alaska lands act because the state wasn't. The Alaska Federation of Natives and other Native groups joined the suit. In March they won.

The state is now appealing, a process that could take a year or more. Mentasta Lake villagers, meanwhile, have spent parts of the past two summers fishing at Batzulnetas, driving pickup trucks down a narrow, muddy trail to reach the camp and a fish wheel set up along a bank of the Copper River. From time to time, park rangers and state fisheries biologists have stopped by to visit.

"I've always been sympathetic to her right to access fish at Batzulnetas, and I think we really tried to accommodate her, " said Roberson, the area's longtime Fish and Game biologist who retired last year. "I think I can understand those people used to go out and fish whenever they wanted to Then suddenly, now, they're in a world that's regulated like crazy.

"We were coming at it from the standpoint of dealing with (salmon) populations being exploited to the hilt, and the guy at the end of the line who wants to tap into a single stock, either that stock is going to be regulated or someone down the line is going to have to give up a lot.

"Nobody wants to hassle Katie. I have nothing but respect for Katie John, " he said. "We were just trying to protect the resource. But I also think that at some point, she became a pawn in a bigger game that had a lot less to do with Katie John than it had to do with sovereignty and a lot of other issues."

Katie John rejects the notion that she's being used, and people who know her say she's become even more outspoken as the case has dragged on. Her lawyer, Anderson, says the lawsuit has politicized some of her younger descendants.

"She's just got this iron will and she won't be denied this fishery, " Anderson said. "She's willing to keep at it even if it takes her lifetime. By way of example, she instills everyone around her with this amazing determination, including me.

"I think people at Mentasta really see themselves as kind of leading the way in this subsistence fishing fight. If you can get an old fishery back that's been shut down for 20 years, people wonder what else is possible. The people in that village, because of Katie John, now they won't take no for an answer on anything without getting a good explanation."


The morning after her visit to Batzulnetas last month, Katie John sat at the kitchen table at her log cabin back in the village, sipping black coffee. The village outside was silent. A granddaughter and baby slept in a back bedroom. Most of the men were Outside working on wildfire crews.

Katie John had been up late the night before cutting fish brought home from the river. She had beamed when she saw some bottles of salmon oil, rendered the old-fashioned way by her daughters from the fat in fish heads. They'll use it to dip dried fish, much like coastal Natives eat seal oil.

She was proud of a grandson, Dale John, who'd been living at the camp the past few weeks and had begun building a log cache. He was getting ready to head off to trade school, but planned to come back.

Yet Katie John also said she's frustrated that more village kids aren't interested in learning the old ways, that few people from the village spent much time at Batzulnetas after the court victories, that some of the younger people don't know how to properly care for the fish they catch.

"I think about how we used to live, " she said. "I feel it right now, today. I still miss it right now. Nothing's good to me right now. We just lay around and you just don't even do anything. I think about those days and how we used to live. We never stay home long. We move around all the time, we don't stay in village year-round. We had to go out there, camp there, camp over there. We just go camping every place, maybe 50 miles, 100 miles out walking to go hunting. That's nothing to those people."

A visitor suggested it had been a difficult, dangerous life, that surviving in the world today was easier.

"I don't think that's a hard life. Right now they're gonna think it's a hard life. I think it's an easy life to me. Snare rabbit, go hunt spruce hen, fish, catch porcupine -- eat all those things. That's the way I was raised.

"Today is a miserable life for me. You just do everything easy all day. You go pick blueberries, you jump in the car to do it. Today, nothing. They have a life, but a lot of them, they're not too happy I don't think. They forgot the Native laws. They forgot how they used to live."


Still, Ahtna culture is hardly dead at Mentasta Lake. Some of the younger villagers say they're trying to find a balance between old and new, learning how to move through the modern world while finding strength and value in the ways and knowledge of people like Katie John.

One of Katie John's daughters, Nora, sits on the tribal council and works as a health aide at the clinic. Driving her pickup to fish camp the day before, she had talked of the sobriety movement that's begun to take root in Mentasta Lake. A few years ago, she said, almost everyone except her mother, a few other elders and the young children drank. Now most not all, but more than half are sober, she said.

It hasn't been easy, she said, but people are thinking more and more about their children and the future.

Katie John says she thinks about the future too.

"I told you how many grandchildren I have. When I'm gone, how are they going to live? They got to have some way. They got to remember the way I learned. If they don't, they're going to be lost and won't know where they are. That's why I've got to do it for all my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and my great-great-grandchildren.

"I don't do this for myself. I'm too old for that now. I'm thinking about the many days ahead."


Anchorage Daily News

David Hulen

David Hulen is editor of the ADN, He's been a reporter and editor at ADN for 36 years. As a reporter, he traveled extensively in Alaska. He was a writer on the "People In Peril" series and covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He was co-editor of the "Lawless" series. Reach him at