The late Katie John is seen here sharing stories with her grandchildren at her beloved fishcamp. Courtesy photo

Gwendolyne John: Alaska brings assault on Native subsistence

The following opinion by Gwendolyne John was submitted on behalf of the grandchildren of Katie John.

As Katie John’s friends and family, including more than 250 grandchildren, continue to mourn her passing and try to return to life without their beloved leader, the state of Alaska was quietly preparing their daggers for a different kind of battle. One that will directly impact this large family and Native Americans across the United States.

Katie John is best known for her long legal fight for traditional rights for Alaska Natives. John was lead plaintiff in a 1990 lawsuit that resulted in stronger Native subsistence fishing rights in Alaska.

The case was filed after the state refused to allow John and two other elders, Doris Charles and Gene Henry, access to their fish camp that their grandparents and parents and family had used for century old generations. John was fighting to keep her family’s fish camp which she was raised from, by customary and traditional subsistence practices. She was determined that her children and grandchildren would carry on those practices as well and have a place to continue to raise their children from.

The legal fight took a decade before John prevailed. The case followed a federal takeover of subsistence fishing on federal waters and established that the federal government has authority on most waters in Alaska to ensure a subsistence priority for rural residents.

The federal takeover came after the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that the state constitution guarantees all residents equal access to Alaska fish and game. That ruling put the state at odds with the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which required a rural preference for subsistence which the Alaska State Constitution does not have in place. It was this landmark lawsuit that led to federal recognition of Alaska Native subsistence rights.

Five months since Katie John’s passing on May 31st, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) joined together and recognized this matriarch of subsistence rights. Katie John’s name was honored with the Hunter-Fisher award at the 2013 AFN convention, one of a dozen President’s Awards that were given to those who have made outstanding contributions to their families and the Native community.

AFN is Alaska’s largest statewide Native organization and is held annually each October. Its membership includes 178 villages (both federally-recognized tribes and village corporations), 13 regional Native corporations and 12 regional nonprofit and tribal consortia that contract and run federal and state programs. The mission of AFN is to enhance and promote the cultural, economic and political voice of the entire Alaska Native community. Politicians, tribal leaders and statewide representatives come together to address the Alaska Native community and ask for support.

This year, Governor Sean Parnell addressed the convention and its thousands of attendees while promising to have his administration begin work with the tribes on different issues that face Alaska Natives. Sean Parnell's tweet after John’s passing was still in the minds of family and was comforting as he stood before so many family members and supporters of John, “We send our condolences to the family of Katie John. She will always stand tall in our history as a tireless supporter of indigenous rights."

All of it sounded promising and the applause was heard from all over the state, the rest of the US and even different countries as individuals tuned in all over online to listen to him speak. Meanwhile back at the state capital other plans where brewing and this one would stun all of those who had applauded the Governor and bring them briefly to their knees in sorrow at the injustice.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, this week it was announced that Parnell administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the latest Katie John subsistence ruling. As taken back as the Native community was they were also angered. Social media sites flared and the local media was abuzz.

Former Governor Tony Knowles even weighed in. He ridiculed Gov. Sean Parnell for raising it "from the grave" like "zombies." He went on to say, "What you're talking about is a core value for rural Alaskan and Alaska Natives. When you challenge that, they will step up to the plate and they will have lots of support, and count me as one of them."

AFN called a news conference this last Tuesday in Anchorage and was quick to state publicly: "The latest action by the state of Alaska is an assault upon the people of Alaska who depend upon hunting, fishing and gathering to feed their families," said Tara Sweeney, AFN co-chair.

"The state of Alaska's attempted overreach is a reckless attempt to unravel the precedents set by the lower courts and through administrative procedures," said Rosita Worl, chair of AFN's subsistence committee. "Too much time, energy and precious funding has been wasted in the state's ongoing attacks on subsistence. Enough is enough."

The state of Alaska and the Governor have brought this assault less than six months after John’s passing, less than one month after her honoring and now during Native American Heritage Month when we pay tribute to the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans.

The family of Katie John urges the governor and State of Alaska to "Let our beloved elder Mother, Aunt, and Grandmother rest in peace and let our family mourn." However if that is not the case then they are prepared to fight. This is a group who was raised to survive and the war drums are starting to beat across the state. Backed by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and AFN among other organizations the family now publicly asked for your support throughout the U.S. in this battle.

Write letters to the Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty asking him to weigh in on this appeal in favor of Katie John. Write letters to Governor Sean Parnell criticizing him for his actions and help us get the word out about this subsistence case that affects our entire state and nation. We need awareness and we need your help in bringing this understanding to our politicians. We need our neighboring tribes across the country to support us as we strive to uphold our sacred traditions.

Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty
P.O. Box 110300
Juneau, AK 99811-0300
Phone: (907) 465-2133
Fax: (907) 465-2075
Governor Sean Parnell
Alaska State Capitol Building Third Floor
P.O. Box 110001
Juneau, AK 99811-0001
Phone (907) 465-3500
Fax (907) 465-3532

Gwendolyne John is the daughter of Fred Jr and Linnea John, Granddaughter of the late Fred Sr. and Katie John. Gwendolyne is an Ahtna Athabaskan Indian, born and raised in Alaska. Her family is from the federally recognized tribe of Mentasta located ouside the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This remote location is surrounded by the Alaska Range is known for its subsistence and traditional lifestyle. Gwendolyne currently resides San Marcos, California, and works for Indian Health Council, an IHS clinic which provides service to the nine tribes of North County San Diego.

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