Athabascan Elder Katie John was ‘a role model for Alaska Natives’

Katie John

Katie John. (Photo by Chris Arend. Photo is owned by Ahtna, Incorporated.)

The Athabascan elder who was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that strengthened Native subsistence fishing rights in Alaska has died.

Katie John passed away early Friday morning at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She was 97-years-old.

The Athabascan elder who was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that strengthened Native subsistence fishing rights in Alaska has died.  Katie John passed away early Friday  morning at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She was 97 years old.

 John and the Mentasta Village Council sued the U.S. government in Federal Court in 1985 when the Alaska Board of Fisheries did not allow them to fish at an abandoned fish camp in an area which is now part of Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park.

 The suit claimed the federal government had unlawfully excluded subsistence fishing from the protections of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The judge ruled in John’s favor in 1994. The state of Alaska battled that ruling, but in early 2001, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.

Later that year, then governor of Alaska Tony Knowles announced he would not fight the 9th Circuit decision before the US Supreme Court.  A delighted Katie John said the governor told her of his decision in person

“This morning he called me he said no more. You got everything. So I was so happy, I was pretty sick, too, this morning and the last couple of days I’ve been sick, I got a cold. So when he talked to me about the case, I was jumping around. [laughs] I forgot my sickness.”

 At the time, Knowles told the Alaska Public Radio Network that  he made his decision because the litigation was only widening the gap between urban and rural Alaskans

“I think anyone that would talk to Katie John and to look at what she does would believe that what she does is right. It’s not wrong, to provide for her family in the best way that she knows how is right for her, for her family and for thousands of other families from Metlakatla to Bethel to Noorvik. This is something the state must support. You know, we have to stop that losing legal strategy that we have pursued for ten years, and stop the permanent divide that it has threatened to cause among Alaskans.”

 Native American Rights Fund attorney Heather Kendall Miller, who represented John in court, says John continues to be a role model for Alaska Natives.

“She represents the Alaska Native determination to hold onto their way of life, that is intimately connected to the land and is a very rich and rewarding life that has become known as subsistence way of life. And she wanted to pass on the customs and traditions to her family and her children and her community. And that is what she spent her life doing.”

John received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2011 for her advocacy of indigenous rights and her ongoing efforts as a teacher of culture and language. Dr. Jim Kari with the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks, worked with Katie John on efforts to preserve Alaska Native languages by developing an alphabet of the Athna Athabascan dialect.

 “One memorable statement by Katie John is ‘everything I know, I keep in my head.’ Just this morning I spoke briefly with Chief Fred Ewan, who said this, ‘we lost the best woman we ever had.’ “

 John raised 14 children and six adopted children with her husband Mentasta Traditional Chief Fred John.

Family members have not released plans for a funeral yet.


A funeral service has been scheduled for late Athabascan elder Katie John.

John’s funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at her home village of Mentasta.

A visitation service is set for 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Anchorage Baptist Temple.

This story has been updated to include comments from people who knew Katie John.

Recent headlines