Athabascan chief honored at 100th birthday potlatch

Posted: Tuesday, October 17, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Chief Peter John, the traditional chief of Interior Athabascans, was honored at a 100th birthday celebration over the weekend.

Family and friends gathered Sunday at John's log cabin home at Minto for a surprise potlatch to help him celebrate a century of life.

John greeted well-wishers throughout the day and rested for a time in his bedroom when necessary.

Steve Ginnis, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, drove up from Fairbanks to convey birthday wishes. Gov. Tony Knowles called John to express the same.

''He's really tired out today,'' said granddaughter, Julie John, 27, who cares for him.

The original plan was to hold the potlatch at the community hall, but that idea was scrapped when organizers realized it would be too tiring for John. So the potlatch was moved to his two-bedroom home.

Village men set up a cooking area outside to brew moosehead soup and bake king salmon. Inside, the women roasted turkey and made a wide assortment of side dishes.

''This was more to his liking,'' granddaughter Julie said. ''He could hear everybody. Five generations of John's family were on hand for the birthday feast.

John was born in the fall at Rampart. His actual birthdate is not known.

According to the introduction of a book entitled, ''The Gospel according to Peter John,'' his mother died when he was 2 and his father cared for him until falling ill.

In 1909, John was sent to St. Mark's Mission School at Nenana, earning a third-grade education and leaving around 1917 to work on a river steamer.

In 1925, he married Elsie. They lived at Old Minto village where they led a semi-nomadic lifestyle, traveling traplines in winter and living in fish camps in summer. They had been married 70 years at the time of Elsie's death in 1995.

The couple had 10 children of their own and adopted three others. Only three daughters survive.

A spiritual and moral force among his people, John made headlines last year when he demanded that his name be removed from the Fairbanks riverfront tribal hall named in his honor.

That came after the rules were changed and alcohol was allowed to be served at hall functions. John's wishes were honored and his name now graces the Tanana Chiefs building.

The tribal hall was renamed the Chena River Convention Center.

Among John's birthday gifts was a beaded necklace and a plaque with his favorite Bible verse (John 3:16). But his favorite gift was a tan cowboy hat.

''It's a humungous Stetson, and he really likes it,'' Julie said.

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