Over 200 Grandchildren? Elder Katie John’s Legend

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If you were a person, both young and middle-aged, wearing a white scarf, a white ribbon, or a white bandana at Katie John’s celebration of life, you were one of her grandchildren, great grandchildren, or great-great grandchildren.

Born in Slana, Alaska in 1915 (died 5/31/13) Katie had 14 natural children, and adopted six more throughout her lifetime; a life described by teaching her children the traditional ways of living off the land, respecting elders, and knowing and honoring the ways of your ancestors. Remarkably, Katie and her husband John, never accepted welfare for the care of their family.

I drove from our cabin in Tazlina to the village of Mentasta to take part in the festivities with the Ahtna people from neighboring villages, as well as people from around the world who respected and loved this aspiring woman. There was still some ice on the lakes in early June. And many more travelers than usual on the Tok Cutoff Rd.; I knew many were headed to the tiny Athabascan village.
Katie John was a living legend in her time. A beloved leader, Katie’s legend is tied to her decades long struggle in challenging the United States government in the fight

for the subsistence hunting and fishing rights for all Alaska Natives. Finally in 2001, the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of protectiing these rights. Her legal battle was a long, drawn-out fight inspiring indigenous native peoples from all over the world.

In 2001, Katie was awarded an honorary doctorate of law degree from the University of Alaska for her spirit and determination in challenging the government and state of Alaska in ways they had never been tested before. She believed in the right to feed her people. Demonstrators in Anchorage proudly marched with signs saying “Don’t mess with Katie,” during those heated times. I’m heartened she was able to witness a positive conclusion in her people’s favor, a decade before she passed away.

A proud woman of the Athabascan tribe Katie saw many “firsts” during her time on earth. She grew up in a time when people used dog teams to pack their supplies, walked to where they wanted to go, and harvested game for food. Katie witnessed the future: the progression of dog sleds to planes and cars. The introduction of electric power in the villages, satellite TV into people’s homes and, of course, the Internet.  Imagine all the changes that have occurred over nearly 100 short years.

At 97 years of age, she had seen the speed of drastic change but still held on to the battle for the right to derive her family’s sustenance from the land. One cannot stay tied to their traditional culture consuming junk foods found in the small village stores.
Today there are still indigenous people across the globe who practice lasting
ties to the land, and their traditional ways deserve our respect. Katie’s children said this about her: she taught a strong work ethic; she was honest, trusting, forgiving, and showed great love for everyone she met.
A life well-lived from a long-ago era; may you rest in peace, Katie John.


0 thoughts on “Over 200 Grandchildren? Elder Katie John’s Legend”

  1. A towering personality, yet a simple woman of thee land.
    Her kind has gone for good; it is in all our interests that the likes of Katie John are not forgotten.

  2. What a lovely tribute to Katie. How special that you could be there. I just wrote a blog this morning about how long it takes to grow roots in an area, and what that might mean. It sounds like Katie grew roots and her branches are still growing throughout the land.

  3. What a remarkable woman Katie John was, and what a meaningful legacy she left her descendants and the Athabascan tribe. Imagine that, having to fight for the right to derive sustenance from the land, when we should all be desiring to come closer to the land and our connection with it. Or, as Kathy brought out so well in her blog post, our interdependence with it.

  4. Unlike the mobility of today, Katie stayed in her village and helped countless people to ground themselves in a traditional way of life. Educators in the villages today try to prepare young people to pursue education "outside", but still be well-versed in their language and culture.

  5. Yes, and I believe in supporting indigenous people by way of not forcing them into "our" world view and life-ways; many indigenous cultures around the globe are becoming endangered due to the power and greed. We can learn lessons from those who live close to the land.

  6. Actually, I think the best news is that her kind hasn't "gone for good". Here and there there are people dedicated to forging connections to the land, honoring traditions, respecting the wisdom of the elders and daring self-sufficiency. In her own life, she demonstrated the power of one committed individual, a power expressed poetically in Christian scriptures with images of salt, leaven and light.

    "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine" was a favorite at my childhood's vacation Bible school. It's a fun song, and we probably enjoyed the various hand gestures more than we understood the lyrics, but today? Katie John's light still is shining, and if we keep that wick trimmed and the oil refreshed, it will shine for a long, long time.

  7. The Native American community here heavily invests in their Christian religion to lift themselves up from the rampant assault of alcoholism; Katie influenced her people in this respect too, by overcoming that obstacle in her own life, and teaching others to do the same. When people lose their language and culture, a heavy price is paid affecting everyone in each successive generation. A lesson for us all: keep that little light shining within (the mustard seed), even though it is often obscured by heavy trials. Thank you, Linda, for your thoughtful response…so poetic in and of itself!

  8. I like it that this blogging mechanism exists to share such positive aspects of our lives. I never heard of Katie until now, so far removed from Alaska as I am.
    Thank you so much for bringing Katie's life to me, for the pictures that illuminate, for the descriptions that transplant me to another lovely part of the world.
    Katie was blessed by your friendship.
    And I rejoice that she lived to see the day of accomplishment for Alaska.

  9. So thoughtful of you to take a look. It is an honor and privilege to bring stories of the land and people to readers far off and away…it truly is a small world and we can all learn from each other's life ways.

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Welcome to the creative playground of Image, Sculpture, Verse.  I live in a river town nestled in the Chugach Mountain Range of Southcentral Alaska.



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