Governor pays visit to Katie John, discusses subsistence, court case

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2001

JUNEAU -- Katie John's life revolves around a fish wheel that sits along the Copper River.

The 85-year-old Native woman depends on that wheel to help feed her 16 biological and adopted children and their offspring and contribute to the subsistence life of more than 100 people at the village of Mentasta Lake.

''That's where I been raised. We been fishing for many, many years,'' John said.

Sunday, she spent several hours with Gov. Tony Knowles at her village, talking about her life of subsistence hunting and fishing and hearing his plans for her court case.

John is at the center a lawsuit over whether the state or federal government should regulate the practice. The federal government has managed both hunting and fishing since 1999 after an earlier state Supreme Court ruling making it unconstitutional to give a preference to rural subsistence hunters and fishermen in times of shortage.

Natives make up about 51 percent of rural Alaskans.

Knowles flew from Fairbanks to Tanacross, then drove the 50 miles to Mentasta Lake before traveling by all-terrain vehicle to her fishing camp about 20 minutes south of the village. It was the first time he had visited her at her home.

He talked to her about her case and his decision to request that the U.S. Supreme Court give him a 60-day extension of time before deciding whether the state would appeal a lower court ruling that allowed her to fish the river with federal permission.

Knowles said he wants to return decisions about subsistence fishing and hunting to the state, but lawmakers have repeatedly rejected a constitutional amendment required to do so.

Knowles said he empathizes with John, who is opposed to the state appealing the 9th Circuit Court ruling in her favor.

''You feel it in your heart that what she is doing is something we should be fighting for and protecting,'' Knowles said Thursday. ''She relayed to me she strongly wants to protect her right to subsistence fishing so she can raise her family in the best way she knows how.''

John, an honorary elder to the Mentasta Traditional Council who has a patchwork of about 160 acres spread out around the area about 250 miles southeast of Fairbanks, said she was happy the governor appeared personally.

''I show him my life, and how I been living and how we been raised. I open his eyes,'' Jones said during a telephone interview Thursday.

Kathryn Martin, John's 30-year-old granddaughter who also acted as her interpreter, said sport hunters and commercial fisheries have made their life more difficult.

Her fish wheel, which can take up to 200 fish a day during a good salmon run, has collected about 70 since June. Martin said sport hunters cross their land to get to state hunting areas and ''when we go up there to try to hunt, there's nothing left.''

''Sometimes we find moose up there that's been shot and just the antlers gone. That makes us sick because we use the whole moose,'' Martin said.

She said the family would support a constitutional amendment to give a rural preference to subsistence hunting and fishing, but they aren't optimistic it would happen.

''It seems like every time they pass a law, it's for Anchorage or Fairbanks and they don't care about what goes on in these small communities,'' said Martin, who is also tribal administrator.

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