A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

Support Logbook
Index - by category
Blog Index
The journal that this archive was targeting has been deleted. Please update your configuration.
« One image from Katie John's victory celebration - the story of how she won her victory will soon follow | Main | Katie John's funeral and potlatch: on the night before burial, dance wiped away the tears »

Katie John finished well - her descendants mourn, celebrate her life, bury her, eat, dance give gifts and prepare to carry on

As her funeral was about to begin, granddaughter Crystal Ewan placed flowers upon the Pendleton blanket draped over Katie John's casket as Lorna David looked on.

Fred John, one of Katie's sons, welcomed the mourners, many of whom had traveled significant distances to get here. He spoke of the hurt and disbelief he and his family still felt, but also of the strong will, sense of humor and the desire his mother had for all her descendants to carry on.

Pastor Yvonne Echohawk, who conducted the service, noted that the name of Katie John was known, loved and respected not only in Alaska but across the US and even the world, especially among indigenous people and those to whom justice matters. Included among these is Eruare Kawe of New Zealand, who offered the opening prayer in his Maori language. 

Sitting behind Kawe were the offical pallbearers, including 99 year-old Ben Neely, Ahtna Traditional First Chief, 97 year-old Fred Ewan, Second Chief, Martha Sam and Jerry Isaac, President of Tanana Chiefs Conference, as well as Robert Marshall and Bernice Joe. Marshall and Joe are hidden behind Kawe, but both will appear in the slide show linked at the bottom of this post.

"We lost the best woman we ever had," Ben Neely reportedly said.

The lights were dimmed as best they could be in a tent sitting in the bright sun and a retrospective of Katie's life was presented. 

Reactions of family members as they watch the retrospective, above and in the following three images:

The congregation stood and sang, "How Great Thou Art."

"O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed.... How great Thou art!"

Hillel Echohawk and Alma John, two of Katie's over 250 living grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, performed a special number, combining song and sign.

Veronica Solomon, comforted here by Katie's daughter, Nora David, delivered the eulogy:

Katie (Sanford) John was born to Charley and Sara Sanford at Slana, Alaska, on October 15, 1915. Katie's father was the last chief of Batzulnetas. Katie moved to Batzulnetas when she was six years old. Batzulnetas, a historic upper Ahtna village and fish camp located at the confluence of Tanada Creek and the Copper River would later serve as the place where Katie made her infamous subsistence stand and changed how we define subsistence hunting and fishing in Alaska today. The State of Alaska closed Batzulnetas in 1964 along with all other Ahtna fish camps in the upper Copper River....

When Katie turned 16, she married Fred John Sr, and moved to Mentasta. Fred and Katie had 14 children and adopted six other children. Katie and Fred lived in Mentasta all of their married life and raised their 20 children completely off of the land. Fred and Katie worked hard to provide for their large family. Katie never applied for welfare to support her children. Katie raised her children knowing who they were, where they came from and how to live off of the land. Katie also taught other survival skills. Katie's strong work ethic was a lesson she passed onto her children and grandchildren. Fred and Katie's legacy lives on in over 250 grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren that survive them today.

From the time she was born, Katie was raised in very traditional Upper Ahtna culture. Katie's world began to change when, at 14, she took a job washing clothes at the Nabesna Mine. This was when a young Katie started to learn English. A beloved storyteller and teacher, Katie recalled many "firsts" in her lifetime - seeing an airplane and a car and riding in both and getting a perm!

Katie grew up in a time when families used pack dogs to haul supplies and carry heavy loads. People walked to where they needed to go, even if that was to a village 100 miles away. The memories of seeing cars and planes for the first time and then being able to ride in both were amazing to a traditionally raised young lady. Though she learned to operate in a modern, faster moving world, Katie was most comfortable among her family at home in Mentasta or at fish camp.

Katie John's blessing to all of us will be for insisting in 1984 that her fish camp be opened for subsistence fishing. Katie's spirit and determination challenged the State of Alaska and the Federal Government in a way the legal systems had never been tested and she won! The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) filed suit on behalf of Katie John in federal court, claiming that Congress intended to protect subsistence fishing on navigable waters as well as game on public lands. Though she won this case in 1994, the Katie John Case as it came to be known, was appealed and litigated for years. In 2001, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed Katie's ruling that Title VIII did apply to all navigable waters in which the federal government owns reserved water rights. As a result of this ruling the federal  agencies then adopted final regulations that identify those waters in Alaska that fall within federal jurisdiction.

In honor and recognition of her work and service to the Ahtna people, Alaska Natives and all of Alaska, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) presented Katie with an honorary doctorate of laws degree at the 2011 Spring commencement ceremony.

Matt Hayashi and Lael Echohawk sang a special song, Will Rise.

Harry and Diane John comfort each other. Lorna David expresses what she feels in her heart.

In her sermon, Pastor Echohawk spoke of Caleb of the Old Testament and how, after receiving his inheritance and living to be an old man, he still determined he wanted to finish well.

"I want to tell you this woman right here finished well," Echohawk said as she pointed at Katie's casket. "She didn't finish half way, she didn't do it half way. She finished well. She went all her life not allowing bitterness to come into her heart for the different things that happened, not allowing anger to be her main force in her life. But love was her force in her life and she finished well! She finished well in the land that God had given her and she knew this was her land that God had given her, she knew that Batzulnetas was her inheritance that she fought for. Her life reflected that. Her life reflected that 'I know what I am born for and I'm going to do it...'

"Her primary force was you guys. Her relationship with God and you guys. The main focus of her life was justice for you." 

Echohawk is one of the children Katie and Fred adopted.

Katie's eldest son, Robert John Sr. sang a hymn in the Ahtna language he himself had composed, I have Decided to Follow Jesus.

"One thing my mom told me, don't ever be mad at nobody," Robert related. "If you are mad and you say you love Jesus, you are a liar. Thank God I have Momma. I thank God for Momma. Thank you, Jesus! My mom loved this song."

Then he sang about Jesus in his own Ahtna language.

It was easy to identify Katie's grandchildren, great grandchild and great-great grandchildren. Boys wore white ribbons and sometimes head bands, girls wore white scarfs: Josiah Standifer and Jason Northway.










"Who'll pray for us now that Grandma's gone?" sang Gary Simple of Venetie. He sang with such energy and force as to cause...

...nearly the entire congregation to stand, clap their hands and sing with him.

Katie's lifelong friend Emma Northway sat by Katie's grandchild, 63-year old Alice.

The congregation of family and mourners sang, Farther Along...*

Farther along we'll know all about it, Farther along we'll understand why. Cheer up my brother live in the sunshine. We'll understand it, all by and by.

*June 12, 2013. This morning after I went to bed, my sporadic sleep kept getting interrupted by the mental force of these lyrics, sung by Wanda Jackson:

See the bright light shine
It's just about hometime
I can see my Father standing at the door
This world has been a wilderness
I'm headed for deliverance
Lord, I've never been this homesick before 
I can see the family gather
Sweet faces, there all familiar
But no one's old or feeble anymore (never grow old)
Oh this lonesome heart is cryin'
Think I'll spread my wings for flyin'
Lord, I've never felt this homesick before. 

Wanda Jackson's recording was played pretty close to the same time as I'll Fly Away. I may have taken this picture as it was being played, rather than when I'll Fly Away was. Either way, both songs were performed, one by the congregation, the other by a recorded Wanda Jackson. Some sang along.

Granddaughter Kathryn Martin, who accompanied her grandmother just about everywhere she went, cared for her and learned from her, recalled how in 2003 the Mt. Sanford Tribal Consortium had made some panels on upper Ahtna culture to go into the villages. As the process neared completion, they realized it was missing something...

"Our relationship with God," Kathryn said. "Mentasta has always believed in God." So she went to her grandma Katie to seek advice. Katie made a blessing, in her Ahtna language, then translated it into English for her:

May God, who created our world, Send His sprit to be in you. May he protect you from evil. May his blessings be upon the land. May the land be good where we walk. May the animals have enough to eat for winter. May the water be good. May the Goodness of God dwell in you. 

"We will love you and miss you, Grandma," Kathryn tearfully concluded. "All of us as grandchildren. It really hurts, but we know, we know where she's at. We are comforted by that.  But our heart hurts. Even when I came home, we were bringing her home, I wanted to go to her house and sit by her so I could gain my strength. And I couldn't. She wasn't there. But I still went to her house. She's still in this village - just looking at all of our family she's still there. She lives on through us. That's her legacy. We are her legacy."

The casket was opened. At Katie's request, there was no photography and all were asked not to touch her as they passed by to view her for the last time. The viewing line was long and wrapped around the tent out of sight. I have heard estimates of about 750 to over 1000 people in attendance. 

In 2010, the population of Mentasta was listed at 112.

Mourners carried Katie John to her grave, where the Lord's Prayer was recited.

She was lowered into her grave. Beautiful songs were sung, mostly Ahtna songs. Words were spoken, words about Katie, words about the Indian way, words about God.

Larry Jonathan speaks. Arthur Stevens holds the shovel.

The sense of sorrow at so great a loss was profound - but in this sorrow the greatness and goodness of Katie's life was manifest.

Now it was time to return to the tent for the potlatch - to drum, to sing, to dance some more; to eat and for the family to give away many fine gifts.

Memories were shared. Allen John.

...happy memories, memories of Katie John. Mourners laughed.

A feast was held. It included fresh killed moose, salmon and other food from the land and some from the grocery store, too. Ben John Jr. serves.

Night came. It was time to dance some more. This being Alaska in June, even if below the Arctic Circle, the sky outside would never grow dark. It would dim a bit. It would get pretty chilly, though.

Matthew Sanford in front, Justin Hjelm with oar.

Once again, Katie's oldest son, Robert. Some of the songs sang at the potlatch were ancient, some new. I understood at least one, maybe more, to have been composed by Katie herself.

Appropriate to the loss of the present, some songs and dances were somber, heavy with sadness and sorrow.

Yet, there is a future to be lived, families to carry on, new ones to be created. Other songs were fun, full of life and energy.

Some songs and dances were just plain powerful.

It was on this night that Jerry Isaac made the statement I partially quoted last night. Some of what he said dealt with death and carrying on in a deeply personal way, but here is how he concluded:

"The final act of honor is what we do tonight. We dance. We dance to wipe the tears away."

David Harrison of the Native Village of Chickaloon presented Kathryn with a blanket sent as a gift from the Native health care provider, South Central Foundation, with a message from Katherine Gottleib, President and Chief Executive Officer. They were aware of how Katie had been grooming Kathryn to stand up after her. To show their support and to encourage her, they sent the blanket. Harrison draped it over her shoulders.

Katie John's family gave away many, many, gifts. No one who stayed to the end left empty handed. There were moose skin moccasins, gloves, hand made dolls, quilts, bottled salmon, Native jewelry - and about 40 rifles and shotguns.

Before they gave the guns away, a long line of family members carried them into the tent and then danced around the perimeter, holding the guns. Above is Katie's granddaughter Lorna David and great granddaughter Leandra Martin.

Ray Denis received a shot gun and other gifts.

The potlatch did not come to an end until just before 4:00 AM. The tent was almost empty by then, in part because it got very chilly inside. When I went to my car, the hood wore a light coat of frost. CC Nollner performed the final dance even as the tarp upon which the gifts had been positioned was being folded up. Others danced to the side with their rifles, shotguns and other gifts.


Slide show   The slide show contains 108 images, including all those that appear above. I have made it primarily for the family and friends of Katie John.


Index to full series. * Designates the main, story-telling, posts:


Dr. Katie John, Ahtna Athabascan champion of Native rights before the Supreme Court of the United States: October 15, 1915 - May 31, 2013

July, 2001: Enroute to Batzulnetas to cover historic meeting between Katie John and Governor Tony Knowles; In a couple of hours I will go to Katie John's Anchorage memorial

*Katie John's Anchorage visitation: the void, the continuation 

*In 1999, Katie John gathered a host of young people together, most of them descendants, and took them camping at Batzulnetas

I pause this series until after the funeral, but here is Katie John with Governor Tony Knowles and the fish that made the difference

This morning at 4:00 AM - leaving Mentasta after Katie John's funeral and potlatch

*Katie John's funeral and potlatch: on the night before burial, dance wiped away the tears

*Katie John finished well - her descendants mourn, celebrate her life, bury her, eat, dance give gifts and prepare to carry on

One image from Katie John's victory celebration - the story of how she won her victory will soon follow

*Katie John and Tony Knowles at Batzulnetas: a fish escaped, the ice cream was hard and a Governor listened

*When Katie John became Dr. Katie John - closing post


Reader Comments (10)

What a lovely celebration of a life well lived. Thank you for sharing.

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShaela

Again, a beautiful story and pictures, but most of all...an education. Thank you Bill. Katie John is gone but her legacy lives on. Powerful loving woman!

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMrsGunka

That was beautiful. I felt the emotion and the loss way down here.

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLittle Sister

Thank you, Bill, for all the work you've done and time you've spent pulling together these posts that pay tribute to the life and accomplishments of Mrs. John. Whenever anyone wants to know about "the best" Alaska has to offer, her story should be the first one told.

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElsie

Thank you for this beautifully produced story. The pictures are magnificent and I am deeply grateful for your work that can touch so many of us unable to be there in person. Blessings on the life of Katie John.

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClaire Richardson

Thank you so much for sharing this with us Bill. What a fantastic life well-lived.

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAKPetMom

thank you for all the love and work you have put into this farewell to a great woman and leader.

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterwendy


June 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjanicekawe New Zealand

A most meaningful way to honor such an awesome woman of God and powerful elder of her people. An excellent job of documenting the ceremony and celebration of Katies life. It made you feel like you were there in the village sharing in the gathering, many dear friends and family were involved. Thank you so much!

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScott Miller

Bill, when I was a child, I read. I read everything that I could get my hands on, practically. I read about potlatches. I imagined pictures to go with the words. Today, you have provided illustrations to go with all those words that I read so very long ago.

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdebby

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>