Katie John reaches celebrity status in Alaska

Posted: Thursday, September 20, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Kathryn Martin has found that traveling with her grandmother, Katie John, is like hanging around a celebrity.

The pair can barely walk down Alaska city streets without someone stopping John to shake her hand and thank the Athabascan elder for filing the now-famous lawsuit that has become the center of the state's subsistence battle.

''It's like walking down the street with the president,'' Martin said.

For the last year Martin has been her 85-year-old grandmother's driver and assistant as John travels to meetings and rallies for speeches and talks. John is in Fairbanks to be the keynote speaker for a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate seminar Thursday at the Fairbanks Princess Hotel. A potluck dinner also was to be held to honor her at UAF's Rural Student Services lounge. The potluck and lunch are open to the public.

John has become a heroine for many Alaska Natives for filing a lawsuit in 1985 to reopen her tribe's historical fishing place on Tanada Creek, one of the headwaters of the Copper River. The camp, called Batzulnetas after an Ahtna Athabascan chief, was closed by the state's Board of Fish in 1964 because of dangerously low fish populations.

''We got no place to fish,'' she said. ''I had to go all the way down to Chitina.'' Chitina is more 100 miles south of Mentasta Lake, where John lives.

Since the filing, John's case has gone through state and federal courts but has stopped just short of the U.S. Supreme Court. This summer Gov. Tony Knowles announced that the state would not appeal a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the federal government has the right to manage navigable waters where it has an interest.

The decision not to appeal was criticized by state's rights proponents who say the state has the authority to manage waters in the state and that the 9th Circuit overstepped its bounds. Federal law calls for a rural priority for certain Alaska fisheries while state law does not.

Knowles' decision was a victory for John, who said she spent most of her life fighting for fishing rights not just for her family and tribe but everyone.

Last year John chose Martin as the person to receive her store of traditional Athabascan knowledge, including the subsistence fight. To that end, John wants her granddaughter and namesake to accompany her whenever she travels.

''I'm very honored in a way, but I'm also very hesitant,'' Martin said. ''I don't want that responsibility.''

Martin explained that in Mentasta Lake, everyone does what John asks. In addition to being a chief, John is the community's knowledge keeper, something that she was trained for as a child, said James Kari, a former UAF linguist who transcribed and edited a book about the Athabascan people who live at the headwaters of the Copper River.

At a Wednesday lunch at UAF, John met with academic leaders such as Chancellor Marshall Lind and Bernice Joseph, the newly appointed dean of the College of Rural Alaska.

''When I think of the queen of England, that's the way I think of her,'' Joseph said. ''That's Katie John.''

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