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Grandmother and the governor: History made over ice cream at fish camp

Sean Doogan
Katie John with former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles at her fish wheel at Batzulnetas. Courtesy of Bill Hess

It was a hot summer day in 2001.  Governor Tony Knowles had a big decision looming on his desk back in Juneau: Whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling allowing rural subsistence users to fish in navigable waters inside federal land, that had been closed to such fishing by the state. 

The case had divided Alaskans.  One group believed that rural residents, especially Alaska Natives, should be allowed to fish in traditional areas, regardless of state regulations -- and without having to get a state permit to do so.  The other was adamant the Alaska Constitution gave all resources (including fish and game) to the state’s people equally, and that the state was the final authority on fishing regulations in all navigable waters, regardless of whether they flowed through federal land.  Both camps believed the justices in Washington, D.C., would rule in favor of the state.

At the heart of the case was a Mentasta Lake Native elder, and great-grandmother, Katie John. John was one of two plaintiffs in the original case filed in 1984, after she was denied by the state the right to fish in her family’s traditional fish camp -- in the abandoned village of Batzulnetas, on the Copper River. In August 2001, John was at the fish camp, waiting for the governor.

A governor bearing Hot Licks

Knowles, speaking after John’s passing last week, said he made the trip to see John and her family because he “wanted to look her in the eyes, and see for (himself), how she lived.” Knowles had been poring through 16 years of court records, public testimony, and opinion about the case. He had just over a month left to decide whether the state would appeal. 

In July, he found himself headed down the Richardson Highway toward John’s fish camp, carrying two gallons of Fairbanks-made, Hot Licks Ice Cream. Dry ice would ensure it survived the journey. “I heard she liked ice cream, so I wanted to make a good impression,” Knowles joked.

Knowles arrived at the camp, after riding the last 20 miles on an ATV. The Johns awaited him -- and there were a lot of them. “It struck me, how much her family meant to her,” said Knowles, when reached by phone at his college reunion in Connecticut. “There were dozens of children running around, her kids, their kids, and even some great-grandchildren.”

Subsistence living had allowed John to feed her clan. She was determined to make sure future generations would have the same opportunities in the same places.

A governor’s pardon?

As they talked about her way of life, John and the governor approached the family’s fish wheel -- a windmill-like structure of wood that dipped fish out of the Copper River’s silty waters as the current pushed its catch baskets around a central hub. As the baskets reached the side of the wheel, they dumped any fish caught into a large wooden box that was partially submerged to keep the fish alive.

“Want to give it a try?” John asked the governor. 

In front of a throng of Native elders, children, and others who had gathered to watch, Knowles reached into the box to retrieve a red salmon. “The darn thing got away from me, and flopped right back into the river,” Knowles said. Any embarrassment he may have felt was quickly extinguished with a smile and a quip. 

“I guess that one got a governor’s pardon,” John quipped. Everyone laughed. Knowles would later say the moment “set the tone” for his talks with John. “But, I knew how much those fish meant to her family and way-of-life, because as nice as she was about it, I wasn’t given another opportunity to pick a fish from the wheel,” Knowles said.

After meeting with Katie John and her family, and talking to other Native leaders that day, Knowles said he decided to drop the state’s challenge to the federal ruling. “If we (the state) had prevailed, it would have further divided Alaska for many generations to come,” Knowles said. “I decided that we could do better, because I knew that people like Katie were not going to stop fishing, and I understood their lifestyle, and culture depended on it.”

In August, 2001, Knowles announced that the state would not seek a reversal from the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The federal rules John helped change remain in place to this day, but the fight over a rural preference to subsistence fishing goes on. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to issue a new ruling on whether federal rules should apply to all navigable waters in Alaska, not just those in federal preserves and parks, shortly. “That decision is expected within weeks,” said Heather Kendall-Miller, a lawyer who has worked with John.

Katie John died on May 28, after several surgeries to repair a brain aneurysm. She was 97 years old. Before her death, John estimated she has more than 350 descendants.

A public memorial service for John will be held Wednesday, June 5, at 2 p.m. at Anchorage Baptist Temple. Her funeral will be held on Saturday, June 8, in Mentasta Lake Native Village at 1 p.m.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com