Alaskans mourn elder who fought for subsistence rights

Photo by Sara Bernard, APRN Anchorage
Photo by Sara Bernard, APRN Anchorage

By Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage and Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

A public memorial service for Ahtna elder Katie John drew a crowd Wednesday in Anchorage. John inspired Alaska Natives, and at least one Alaska governor, with her unyielding stand on Alaska Native subsistence rights.

Yvonne Echohawk, a pastor and an adopted daughter of Katie John, officiated. Echohawk likened John to Biblical heroines. She said her mother never bowed to bitterness in her fight for Native rights.

”Miss Katie John walked up before lawyers, and judges and tv cameras and people, and she said ‘give me my land, give me my water, give me my fish, I want justice for my people.’ And she didn’t rest until she had it. A woman of God, called of God, knew what she had to do and did it. She knew she had a destiny. She knew she had a purpose. And she did it and she did it well,” Echohawk said.

Listen to the APRN report:

Former state legislator Georgiana Lincoln read the eulogy, remembering John’s sense of humor, and thanked her for the “blessing to all of us” that followed John’s insistence in 1984 that her fish camp be opened for subsistence fishing.

”Our beloved leader, elder, loved one, Katie John, we mourn your passing. But we smile your contagious smile, knowing you are at last with those loved ones who waited for you, to dance longer, laugh louder, and play harder. Job well done,” she said.

The legal wrangling that followed John’s lawsuit went on for a decade, until Alaska Governor Tony Knowles decided not to fight the case any longer. Knowles could not be present at today’s memorial, but he sent a letter, read by Echohawk, about meeting John at her fish camp face to face.

” I leaned more that day about rights and values than all the boxes of legal briefs and opinions of a 10-year old divisive lawsuit could ever say. I thank Katie John for being a teacher, I thank Katie John for being a protector of her family, I thank Katie John for being a great Alaskan, fighting for the rights of the people of the Great Land,” Knowles’ letter read.

Friends and relatives of Katie John filled the Anchorage Baptist Temple for the service. Many called her Chook-tay, or Grandma.
Photo by Sara Bernard, APRN Anchorage

Bob Anderson: “I was Katie’s Lawyer when we started the famous Katie John Case in 1985. She’s an important figure for the upper Ahtna people but she’s really a part of the Alaska Civil Rights Movement, not just Native Right, but Civil Rights – and she’s a sweet kind person too.

Photo by Sara Bernard, APRN Anchorage

Donna Pennington: “I grew up in the village of Mentasta. She adopted me in 1969 in the Village of Mentasta and taught her language in the school during my generation. So we were very fortunate that we got to get the language directly from her.”

Eruera Kawe: “My mother in law was adopted by grandma Katie. So I’m originally from New Zealand. Grandma Katie was an inspiration to us. And not only was she a mother, grandmother, a great grandmother to Athabascan people, but to many other nations around the world.”

David Harrison: “She was my relative. You know when she gave you a hug, you knew things were gonna be okay.”

John’s legacy lives on with her over 250 grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. She will be buried in her home village of Mentasta on Saturday.

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