Alaska mourns passing of elder Katie John

Katie John

Anchorage – The Alaska Native community lost a long-time leader Friday. Beloved Ahtna Elder Katie John died early in the day May 31 at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She was 97.


“Today, the Ahtna people lost a beloved leader and respected Elder,” said Michelle Anderson, President of Ahtna, Incorporated. “Our deepest sympathies go to her family as they prepare to bring Katie home. Though Katie was our Elder, she was known and respected throughout Alaska and the world. We know we are not alone in our sadness and appreciate the outpouring of support from all those who knew her. Katie was a strong, traditional Athabascan woman who spoke the truth from her heart. She lived what she believed. If not for Katie John and her fighter spirit, we would not have the subsistence rights we are still fighting to retain today.”

“We are grateful to have enjoyed Katie John’s spirit and leadership for nearly 100 years,” said AFN Co-Chair Ralph Andersen.”Her warmth and dedication to her family and community will be dearly missed.”

John was born and raised in Slana and Batzulnetas, to parents Chief Charley and Sarah Sanford. At the age of 16, she married Mentasta Traditional Chief Fred John, Sr., and together, made the village of Mentasta their home. They had 20 children, six of whom were adopted. John instilled the Ahtna Athabascan culture into each one, raising them to live off the land, to be hard workers, and to respect their Elders. She leaves behind a large family that includes more than 250 grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren.

As a widely respected Native Elder, John is most well-known for her significant role in fighting for the subsistence hunting and fishing rights of Alaska Natives. John’s name became synonymous with Native subsistence rights when she and Doris Charles restored their community’s right to fish at Batzulnetas following the landmark Katie John vs. the United States of America case. Katie’s win established the legal precedent for subsistence protections that remains a cornerstone of subsistence advocacy today. Her decades-long struggle to protect these rights culminated in a 2001 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling stating that the subsistence fisheries protections provided under Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) did in fact extend to all navigable waters in which the federal government owned reserved water rights, effectively allowing subsistence fishing to continue unrestricted in those areas. John’s other accomplishments include an honorary doctorate of laws degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), which was presented to her at the UAF 2011 Spring commencement ceremony.

“Katie John’s example will inspire generations to come,” said AFN President Julie Kitka. “Her name will be our rallying cry, to stand up for our subsistence rights, and to nurture our languages and traditions.”

Her contributions to the Alaska Native community reach far beyond subsistence. She was a beloved member of her family and community — mother, auntie, grandma, great-grandma and great-great-grandma to many. She was a tireless advocate, and dedicated teacher of culture and language.

Katie’s family would like to thank Katie’s many supporters for their compassion and kindness during the family’s time of sorrow.

For more information regarding Katie, including details on funeral arrangements and donations, please contact Kathryn Martin at or (907) 360-7476. In addition, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which represented Katie for 30 years, has a chronology of events leading up to her legal battles on their website at

Ahtna, Incorporated is one of 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and is based out of Glennallen. Seven of the eight villages within the Ahtna region, including Mentasta, are merged with Ahtna, Inc.

The Native American Rights Fund is a non-profit 501c(3) organization that provides legal representation and technical assistance to Indian tribes, organizations and individuals nationwide. The group is based out of Boulder, Colorado, with offices in Alaska and Washington, DC.


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