Johnny Goodlataw, Copper River guru

Johnny Goodlataw, an Ahtna and Copper River leader, educator, father, grandfather, and close friend.

I spend a lot of time explaining the importance of traditional knowledge to scientists and wider audiences in Alaska and across the country; my touchstone on this issue has always been Johnny Goodlataw, an Ahtna and Copper River leader, educator, father, grandfather, and close friend.

Johnny, who died last week at the age of 77, was born in Chitina Alaska, went to school in Chitina and Sitka, and married Irene Nicholai in 1961.  At their home in Tazlina Alaska, they raised 5 daughters and their two “adopted” children, and were delighted by their 17 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.  Johnny retired from the Alaska Teamsters and through his employment, he traveled great distances – from Alaska’s North Slope down to Valdez.

Through it all he worked hard to bridge cultures and people within the watershed.  For many years, Johnny and his family hosted a cultural camp at his personal fishing site on the Copper River, to keep alive traditional ways of Ahtna salmon fishing and processing.  Everyone was welcome at the camp; whenever I saw him he always asked, “You coming to camp?”

Over the last ten years, I attended nearly every year – sometimes stopping in for the day and, at other times, staying for several days, camping by the river.  On occasion, my children came to camp with me.  When my son was less than a year old, he started calling Johnny “grandpa”. This melted my heart and put a twinkle in Johnny’s eye and a smile on his face.

We learned, under Johnny’s direction, how to build traditional Ahtna fishing gear – a fishwheel and a fish trap – how to cut, dry and smoke salmon; how to gather, prepare, and split spruce roots; how to care for each other, ourselves, the land, and the resources.

Johnny was also integral in establishing cooperative management of salmon fisheries within the Copper River watershed.  And he saved a connected research effort in 2003. We were having trouble catching returning salmon down at Canyon Creek on the main stem of the Copper River — when Johnny designed and built a subsistence-style fishwheel, which traps incoming fish like a turnstile.  It is a gross understatement to say that Johnny’s fishwheel improved the project’s results — if it wasn’t for Johnny’s intimate knowledge of the region, and his fishwheel, this project would have quickly ended for lack of study subjects.

Over the course of the following years, Johnny built additional fishwheels for research projects in both the Copper River and Matanuska watersheds.  The amount of knowledge that was gained in protecting and managing the salmon in Alaska is endless and will pay forward for generations. For this, we owe Johnny our unending thanks.

Erica McCall Valentine directs Ecotrust’s Copper River Program.