Alaska's first Katie John Day:  A celebration of  her fight for subsistence rights

Frank Hopper

The late Ahtna Athabascan matriarch and Native subsistence rights leader fought the State of Alaska for nearly 30 years for the right to fish where her family had always fished

She took on the state of Alaska and sued them for taking away her people’s right to fish for subsistence food. It went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, all Alaska Native people benefit from her victory.

Her name was Katie John, but everyone called her “Tsucde” (pronounced shook-da) which means Grandma. She had 14 children and adopted several others. She was instrumental in keeping the Ahtna Athabascan language alive, helping create its first written alphabet and making recordings that taught correct pronunciation.

And perhaps most importantly she taught the skills and meaning of the subsistence lifestyle to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who numbered about 250 at the time of her death.

She walked into the forest on May 31, 2013, at age 97. This year the State of Alaska officially recognized May 31 as “Katie John Day.”

Saving the hunter-gatherer tradition

In a post on his Facebook page, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy announced his signing of Alaska Senate Bill 78 establishing May 31 as Katie John Day.

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Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy stands with members of Katie John’s descendants moments after signing the bill making May 31 Katie John Day. Katie’s son Fred John Jr. stands next to the governor while holding baby Katie John-Harris, great-granddaughter of Katie John. (Courtesy Fred John)

“Today, May 31, is the first Katie John Day in Alaska. Katie John dedicated her life to preserving the traditional values of all Alaska Natives and is a towering figure among Alaska’s Native community.

“It was a privilege to sign legislation yesterday designating May 31 as Katie John Day in Alaska. Please join me and many other Alaskans in remembering and honoring Katie John’s memory and contribution to Alaska.”

May 31 is special among the Ahtna Athabascan people. On midnight of that day, according to the subsistence fishing rules of the State of Alaska, Ahtna people turn their fish wheels on and begin the fishing season. So to many, it seemed fitting that Katie John finished her journey in this world on that same day.

For countless generations, John’s people had a year-round fish camp at the village of Batzulnetas located where Tanada Creek flows into the Copper River. Katie lived there for most of her early life. She was the daughter of Sanford Charlie, the last traditional leader of the Batzulnetas Indian Village.

When Alaska became a state in 1959, the government began taking control of the fish and game industry. Commercial and sports fishing were given precedence over Native subsistence fishing and in 1964 the fish camp at Batzulnetas was officially closed.

In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act , or ANCSA, was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Alaska Native people received nearly a billion dollars along with areas of fee-simple land split up into regional and village corporations. The Act also specified that the Native people of Alaska give up all claims on the land, including subsistence uses.

In 1980 Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which reestablished the rights of Alaska Native people to hunt for subsistence food on national public land.

In 1984, John and fellow Ahtna elder Doris Charles submitted a proposal to the Alaska State Board of Fisheries to reopen the Batzulnetas fish camp to subsistence fishing. They were told no. Opening the fish camp would damage the take of sports and commercial fishermen downstream.

So with the help of the Native American Rights Fund, John sued the State of Alaska in 1985 to reopen Batzulnetas under the conservation act. But the state of Alaska said the act only covered national public lands, not the waterways that flowed through them. The state said the subsistence rights of Alaska Native people did not apply to the rivers.

Katie John convinces the governor

The case bounced around the federal court system for over a decade. In 2001, Governor Tony Knowles traveled to Batzulnetas and visited with John. He was in the process of deciding whether or not to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

John showed him around and described what it was like to live and fish there when she was a young girl. She took him to the fish wheel and showed him how to harvest a fish from it. The governor pulled one out, but it slipped from his hands and returned to the river. John said it would probably wind up as food for a bear upstream. Everyone laughed.

Back at her camp, John showed the governor their smokehouse and the fish drying racks. She spoke about her father and about Ahtna law and tradition. Then she told him about the day she and her father went to Batzulnetas and were told by a game warden that the camp was now closed and that he could no longer fish there.

“My daddy doesn’t understand,” she told the governor. “He feel bad. My daddy left Batzulnetas.”

She then told him what subsistence meant to her. It meant community. It meant to balance and conservation. It meant respect for the cycles of life. But most of all, it meant sharing.

When Knowles left that day, he told Katie John the State of Alaska has been fighting against the subsistence rights of her people for too long. He promised her he would bring that fighting to an end.

On August 27, 2001, Gov. Knowles called a press conference and made the announcement.

“I have concluded that further litigation in the Katie John case would not be in the best interest of Alaska,” he said.

The governor had formally decided not to appeal the case to the U.S, Supreme Court. Katie John had won.

Don’t mess with Katie John

John was later given an honorary doctorate in law by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. Although different aspects have been challenged in court since then, this episode with Gov. Knowles is generally considered the end of the case, a victory for Tsucde, a victory for Grandma.

Almost immediately after she died in 2013, the Alaska Federation of Natives began campaigning to make May 31 Katie John Day in Alaska. After six years of work, it is finally a reality.

As the world struggles with climate change, pollution, and deforestation, all brought about by the greed of colonizers, Katie John Day, May 31, stands as a reminder of the power of Native grandmas, in particular this one great Ahtna matriarch, who only wanted to fish where her people had always fished and share the way her people had always shared.

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A large group of Katie John’s descendants gather at Mentasta Village to celebrate Alaska’s first Katie John Day. (Courtesy Fred John)
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Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.