Voices of Alaska: Senator must support subsistence rights

  • By Fred John Jr.
  • Saturday, October 11, 2014 5:33pm
  • Opinion

My mother was Katie John. Her name has become symbolic across the state of Alaska for her life-long legal battle to protect traditional rights. The state views her as a threat while her supporters view her as a hero. But to me, Katie John is simply “Mom,” a warm and loving woman who took care of me and my numerous siblings making sure we were clothed, fed and kept warm. Katie John took on the state of Alaska for the right to take care and feed her family the only way she knew how — the same way her ancestors had survived and existed for thousands of years.

Katie’s legal battles begin in 1987 after the State closed our family’s upriver traditional fish camp that had existed and fed our family for centuries. I have many happy memories of summers spent preparing for the cold months ahead by gathering and hunting food in this small area. My mother’s commitment to ensuring her children had a way to practice their traditional rights ran so deep that she spent the rest of her life in litigation against the State.

There were times that it seemed like my mother might finally win and be able to live the rest of her life in peace. But the State kept fighting her, even when the District Court ruled in her favor repeatedly. The final State official to sue was Dan Sullivan. When he was Attorney General in 2010 he dug up awful history by taking the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Today, I can openly and honestly state that I am deeply uncomfortable with the reality that the man who re-opened my mom’s case could be Alaska’s next Senator. Dan Sullivan litigated against our family’s subsistence and traditional rights. It was misguided and wrong. Tony Knowles was in his same position at one time. Before making any bold decisions, he chose to visit our family’s fish camp, meet my mother and learn about the core reason for The Katie John Case. Dan Sullivan could have followed Tony Knowles example. Instead, he chose to continue litigating against my mother, Katie John.

Dan Sullivan cannot represent Alaska and he cannot represent subsistence rights in the U.S. Senate after suing my mother.

A year after my mother passed away at age 97, the Supreme Court refused to accept the State’s petition to overturn the lower court’s decision in her favor. This was another huge victory in the fight for subsistence rights, at least on federal waters. We still have a long way to go in making sure those rights are protected on all lands and waters across the state.

I am hopeful that one day we will no longer have to struggle against the state for the right to take care of our families in the manner my mother and past ancestors survived. I am hopeful because of leaders like Senator Mark Begich. Despite my reluctance to trust the State, I feel Mark Begich has supported and advocated for subsistence rights. I have watched him carefully from his first day in office — he has consistently made sure our voices are heard when making critical legislative decisions that affect our way of life. For example, the re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Subsistence users are being included in the Act for the first time in the bill’s history. Begich also introduced and passed the Traditional Foods Nourishment Act that has helped protect subsistence rights. This legislation stopped the federal government from prohibiting the serving of traditional foods in schools, hospitals, and elder care facilities.

Begich’s actions prove the State does not have to be at war with our traditional and subsistence rights. After decades of battling the State at every turn, it’s a relief to have a politician who not only says he supports us but has also proven himself by fighting to defend and help us build on the progress my mother made.

My mother worked too hard during her lifetime to protect myself, my family and all future Alaskan generations who depend on subsistence and traditional rights to survive. We need to elect March Begich this coming election. We need him in the Senate to help us continue the Katie John legacy. May her life’s work survive and may she rest in peace.

Fred John Jr. (Ahtna Athabascan) grew up in Mentasta Lake. He is the son of the late Katie John, an Athabascan elder who sued both the state and the federal government to win recognition of traditional subsistence rights for her people. Last May, the 71-year-old elder and his brother walked 375 miles from Dot Lake to Anchorage to raise awareness for subsistence rights. John is carrying on his mother’s legacy by bringing attention to the needs of Alaska Native people.

More in Opinion

Hal Shepherd in an undated photo taken near Homer, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Hal Shepherd.)
Point of View: Election integrity or right-wing power grab?

Dr. King would be appalled at what is happening today

Nancy HIllstrand. (Photo provided)
Point of View: Trail Lakes is the sockeye salmon hero, not Tutka Bay

Tutka hatchery produces a pink salmon monoculture desecrating Kachemak Bay State Park and Critical Habitat Area as a feed lot

A resident casts their vote in the regular municipal election Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020 at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Alaska Voices: Break the cycle of failure, debt in 2022

Today, all Americans are coerced, embarrassed or otherwise influenced into one of two old political parties

A map of Kachemak Bay State Park shows proposed land additions A, B and C in House Bill 52 and the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. (Map courtesy of Alaska State Parks)
Opinion: Rep. Vance’s bill is anti-fishermen

House Bill 52 burdens 98.5% of Cook Inlet fishermen.

A sign designates a vote center during the recent municipal election. The center offered a spot for voters to drop off ballots or fill a ballot out in person. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: The failure of mail-in voting

The argument that mail-in balloting increases voter participation never impressed me

Charlie Franz.
Point of View: Election integrity is not anti-democratic

The federalization of elections by the Freedom to Vote Act infringes on the constitutional right of states to regulate elections.

Snow blows off Mt. Roberts high above the Thane avalanche chute, where an avalanche blew across the road during a major snowstorm. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)
An Alaska winter of discontent

It’s been a hard winter throughout the state.

A Uncruise Adventures cruise ship, with a fleet of kayaks in the water behind it, in the Tongass National Forest. Uncruise, a boutique local cruise ship operator, has been vocal about the importance of the intact Tongass National Forest, or SeaBank, to its business. (Photo by Ben Hamilton/courtesy Salmon State)
Alaska Voices: The dividends paid by Southeast Alaska’s ‘Seabank’ are the state’s untold secrets

Southeast Alaska’s natural capital produces economic outputs from the seafood and visitor products industries worth several billion dollars a year

Most Read