Friends and family remember Athabascan leader John

Posted: Monday, August 11, 2003

FAIRBANKS - He never made it past elementary school, but he was described as a brilliant man and eloquent speaker.

He held a job for wages only once in his life, but he worked harder than most people will ever know.

In 102 years, he never stepped foot out of Alaska, yet he had a view of the world that few could ever appreciate.

A day after his death, friends and family remembered Chief Peter John - the traditional chief of the Interior's Athabascan community and one of Alaska's most revered Native elders - as a deeply spiritual man whose sole purpose was to protect and nurture the only lifestyle and culture he ever knew.

"He was always teaching us," said Richard Frank, who knew John for about 70 years and served as chief in Minto in the early 1960s. "He always said, 'Live by the truth and exercise the truth; that's the best weapon you'll ever have."'

John told Frank stories of hunting brown bears with spears and moose with bows and arrows. He was a masterful storyteller who loved to sing Native songs, especially the caribou song.

John used stories and songs to teach younger generations about the Native culture, said those who knew him.

"We can't calculate his loss," said Will Mayo, who as president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference in the early 1990s, became friends with John.

"You had a sense he was seeing inside your soul," Mayo said. "He would talk about spiritual insights that just blew me away."

John died Friday night in his log cabin in Minto surrounded by more than a dozen family members, including eight of his grandchildren, said granddaughter Julie John, who had cared for the chief the last seven years.

"It was really quite a thing," she said. "I think he was just waiting for all his grandkids to be there."

Seven of John's 10 children preceded him in death, as did his wife of 70 years, Elsie, who died in 1995. He leaves a legacy that includes nearly 30 grandchildren, a dozen great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.

John lived most of his life in Minto, an Athabascan village of about 230 people 130 miles northwest of Fairbanks.

Known in his home village simply as "The Old Man" or "The Chief," he was born on Oct. 15, 1900, in the Yukon River village of Rampart. His mother died when he was 2, and his father cared for him until he became ill. He saw his first white man when he was 10.

At age 9, John was sent to St. Marks mission school in Nenana where he spent five years but never made it past the third grade. Instead, he went back to the village and taught himself how to read and write using a dictionary.

In 1994, the University of Alaska Fairbanks awarded John an honorary doctorate.

In 1925, John married his wife, Elsie. They lived in Old Minto village where they led a semi-nomadic lifestyle, traveling traplines by snowshoe in the winter and living in fish camps in the summer.

John worked for money only once in his life, as a deckhand on a river sternwheeler, but he quit to go back to the village and live off the land. He spent most of the time feeding his family, hunting every day and cutting hundreds of cords of firewood.

"He and wife would go out to their wood yard on the Tanana River and cut cord after cord after cord of wood," Mayo said. "He'd have dozens of cords stacked up. All with an ax and Swede saw."

In 1992, John was elected by Athabascan elders to be their traditional chief. The position is a teaching role, not a political one. He sought to remind people what it meant to be Athabascan. He also wrote a book, "The Gospel According to Peter John."

The chief's favorite topics were the Athabascan culture and language.

"It was always an adventure to talk to him," Mayo said. "He would fix you with his eyes and start talking about something and out of the blue he'd say something and the conversation was 10 levels deeper than you anticipated."

Known as an outspoken man, John testified for Alaska Native land claims during the late 1960s and advocated sobriety for Natives.

John made headlines last year when he demanded that his name be removed from a Fairbanks riverfront tribal hall named in his honor when the Tanana Chiefs Conference voted to allow alcohol sales in what is now the Chena River Convention Center.

"Some of you vote like you don't understand what's going on here," John told the delegates who voted, speaking in Athabascan. "You better think of your grandchildren."

Gov. Frank Murkowski on Saturday ordered that Alaska flags be flown at half staff from Monday morning through Friday afternoon in John's honor.

"He was a great leader of his people, especially through the transitions they have made over the past half century," Murkowski said in a statement Saturday. "He will be missed by those who must now take up the mantle of leadership he leaves them."

Following a traditional potlatch and funeral, a date for which has yet to be set, John will be buried in the Minto cemetery next to Elsie.

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