Native American Rights Fund
A lighter moment with Ahtna elder Katie John, who walked on May 31. She was 97.

Fishing Rights, Language and Culture Advocate, Katie John, Walks On

June 04, 2013

Katie John stood up for her rights, advocated for her culture and helped preserve her language.

An Athabascan elder of Mentasta Lake, she walked on May 31 at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage after battling infection following several surgeries. She was 97 years old.

She leaves behind many descendants who were surprised at her passing, even given her recent health struggles, reported the Alaska Dispatch.

“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,” Kathryn Martin, John’s granddaughter and personal assistant, told the newspaper just after her passing.

John has left a lasting legacy though. Not only in her descendants, but in the work she has accomplished.

Katie John’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Native American Rights Fund)

“Katie said she had more than 350 descendants,” said Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. She had worked with John since 1984 when the organization represented the elder in a subsistence fishing lawsuit—Katie John et al. v. the United States of America. The case was known in Alaska as “the Katie John case.”

John, a member of Ahtna Inc.—a regional Native corporation—sued the state after being denied access to a fishing camp inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Her tribe had last used the traditional fishing camp at Batzulnetas before 1964, when the state closed subsistence fishing there.

John wasn’t alone in this lawsuit. She was joined by Doris Charles, who walked on in 2002, but not before seeing the culmination of their efforts. In 1994, all federal waters were opened for Alaska Native residents for subsistence fishing.

Katie John and her grandchildren at Batzulnetas in the late 1980s. (Native American Rights Fund)

John didn’t just fight for subsistence rights; she also worked to preserve her language and culture. She was recognized in 2011 with an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks for her work on the court case, but also for helping to preserve her Ahtna Athabascana language, which is estimated to be spoken by 80 people by the Alaska Native Language Center at the university.

John helped develop the first alphabet for the then unwritten alphabet in the early 1970s, reported the Alaska Dispatch. Her voice will live on in the recorded pronunciation guides available to teach the language.

“Her work is allowing Ahtna youths to rediscover their language, and courses are still being taught in it at the local school,” Martin told the Dispatch.

The loss of John has been felt not only by her family, but throughout Alaska.

“Katie John was an Alaska icon who devoted her life to ensuring that her Ahtna people had the opportunity to carry on traditional subsistence fishing in their ancestral homeland. She was unafraid to challenge any bureaucrat standing between her Native people and their opportunity to fish… Katie John’s life was that of an authentic Alaskan. It is my sincere hope that in the loss of culture bearers like Katie we have not lost forever a piece of Alaska’s soul,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement.

“Alaska has lost a steadfast advocate for Native subsistence rights,” Sen. Mark Begich said in a statement. “From her fish camp on the Copper River, Katie John gave Alaska Natives across our state a voice to their long-sought protection of traditional hunting and fishing rights. While Alaskans mourn her passing, Katie John’s legacy will live on as I and others work to ensure these rights are upheld.”

Kendall-Miller posted a full history of John’s story in association with the Native American Rights Fund on the organization’s website. “With Katie John’s passing, her determination to protect and preserve the Alaska Native subsistence way of life will live on through her family, her children, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she says. “It has been an honor and privilege for all of us at NARF to have worked with such a great and wonderful matriarch. She is an inspiration to all Native peoples and to all people who believe in right and justice.”

A visitation service has been scheduled for June 5 at 2 p.m. at the Anchorage Baptist Temple, 6401 East Northern Lights Boulevard. Her funeral and burial service will be held June 8 at 1 p.m. in her home village of Mentasta.

Questions about the service and information about making donations to John’s family can be directed to Kathryn Martin at [email protected].

Katie John near her fish rack at Batzulnetas after the opening for Copper River sockeye salmon. (Native American Rights Fund)