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Local Mentasta Matriarch Katie John's Landmark Case Stands; Supreme Court Won't Review It

Katie John of Mentasta, the summer before
 she passed away. (Photo, Bearfoot)
The landmark case affirming Ahtna elder Katie John's right to fish in her home streams in the upper Copper Valley has reached a new milestone. Katie John, who died last spring, had successfully sued to catch salmon at Batzulnetas -- as her ancestors had before her. Batzulnetas had become, in the intervening years, part of Wrangell-St. Elias.

In response to her case, known nationwide as "The Katie John Case," lower courts affirmed that subsistence hunting and fishing could be done on federal land and navigable waters. Governor Tony Knowles' administration fought the ruling, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a bitter battle, and the state lost. In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the State of Alaska's petition to review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals 1995 decision, upholding Katie Johns' right to fish.

The state kept battling the well-known and respected Mentasta Ahtna elder for years. But by August, 2001, Governor Tony Knowles announced that the state would not continue with the fight. "We must stop a losing legal strategy that threatens to make a permanent divide among Alaskans, " Knowles said.

Over a decade later, Governor Sean Parnell took the subsistence battle back to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court refused to deal with it again this spring. The high court's decision not to review the state's renewed anti-subsistence appeal mirrored their original 1996 decision.

Katie John was born to Sanford Charley, one of the last great Ahtna chiefs. She used the salmon she got from the Copper River to feed the children in her family, and led a cheerful, productive life. A born leader, she has numerous descendants in the Copper River Valley.

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