In the spring of 1953, Fred John Jr. and his kid sister Nancy arrived home after spending two years at the Wrangell Institute Boarding School in Wrangell, Alaska. Fred was 9, Nancy was 7. They got off the bus at Mentasta Lake, a tiny village 279 miles northeast of Anchorage. Their mother, Katie John, the Ahtna Athabascan matriarch who would later become an Alaska Native leader fighting for subsistence rights, sat on a blanket nearby waiting for them.
Fred and his sister stood by the bus door looking at their mother, not knowing what to do. Fred remembers that moment:
“We didn’t know if our parents still loved us or not. Our young minds were confused. We didn’t know if they sent us away because maybe we did something wrong. We were just little and lots of confusing thoughts went through our minds.”
Finally, their mother held her arms out and they ran between them. She kissed them over and over, covering them with tears.
For the previous two years no one had hugged them or shown them any kind of affection at all. Their clothes were burned and their heads were shaved upon arrival at the boarding school. They were given uniforms and numbers to replace their names. They were spanked for speaking their Native Athabascan language, even though that’s all they knew when they first arrived. They were even punished if caught crying to themselves at night.
And the worst part was, they didn’t know why. Their life had been idyllic before the unending nightmare of their boarding school life began. There’d been no warning and no explanation for the exile they’d been forced to endure. So even though they enjoyed their mother’s hugs and kisses, they steeled themselves against possible future abandonment.
“We started building walls around us,” Fred remembers. “We didn’t know it, but we had to protect ourselves because by then we knew they would come and get us again.”
This pain crippled Fred and his siblings who attended the Wrangell Institute Boarding School. He feels it contributed to their later alcoholism.
“I believe this time of confusion from our youth stayed with us until we were adults and we kept that self-built wall around us and we drank alcohol as a cover for how we felt.”
Flash forward 61 years.
Fred stands in front of about 150 supporters at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. It is May 31, 2014, and Fred is 71. He has just completed a month-long trek on foot from Dot Lake near his ancestral home to the Anchorage hospital where his 97-year-old mother passed away exactly one year before, a distance of 375 miles.
Fred, his brother Harry and other family members and friends left Dot Lake on May 1 of that year, stopping at all the small towns and villages along the way, sharing their message with supporters and distributing specially made tee shirts. They called it the Walk for Tsucde or Walk for Grandma. Tsucde, pronounced “schook-da,” is what those close to Katie John called her.
Fred made this walk to raise awareness of Alaska Native subsistence rights, to promote sobriety, to honor all Native grandmothers, and to honor his own mother, an Alaska Native icon who fought the state of Alaska for over 30 years to win back the right to fish in their ancestral village of Batzulnetas.
On a more personal level, Fred is healing the wounds he and his siblings suffered from being sent to boarding school.
“I was called number 77,” he tells the crowd about those days. “I hated myself because of who I was, how I had been born, and mostly because of the face that always looked back at me in the mirror.”
Fred shares how he almost succeeded in denying his Native ancestry until his children came along, forcing him to confront his ethnicity. He credits his wife Linnea with having faith his fear, sadness and anger would one day come to an end. He calls his family “the ointment, the healing touch I needed to survive and begin to grow again.”
On April 1 of this year, House Bill 275, establishing October 18 as the state of Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples Day, was amended to include May 31 as Katie John Day, “to honor Athabaskan elder Katie John for her fight for subsistence rights and her teaching of the traditional way of life.” The bill was referred to the State Affairs Committee where it currently sits while the legislature struggles with the state’s budget crisis. Last year the Alaska Native Regional Corporation, Ahtna, Inc. passed a resolution declaring May 31 as Katie John Day for their shareholders and employees.
As Fred stands in front of supporters and relatives of his mother at the end of the Walk for Tsucde, he knows now how she had no choice in sending him to boarding school. Relatives later told him what she said while he was away:
“They took our children. They said if we don’t send them away to school they will take them anyway. In the winter I look out the window and there are no children playing outside. There is no snowman and no snow houses like the kids used to build. No kids are sliding down the hill with paper cardboard or shovels as sleds. I sew by myself with no one to teach or help cook. I do not have the kids to tell stories to or teach how to trap and hunt small game.”
To Katie John, the subsistence lifestyle she grew up with included all these things. But none of them work without families, without children.
For over 30 years Katie John fought to regain the traditional subsistence lifestyle her people had enjoyed since time immemorial. As Fred stands in front of his supporters he sees the faces of Katie’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A family once ripped apart by colonization is now healed by a Native grandmother’s determination to restore the tradition of subsistence.