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Alaska Editorial: Gov. Parnell's decision reignites subsistence battle

Posted: November 12, 2013 - 12:00am

The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

The administration of Gov. Sean Parnell argues that it is asserting states’ rights and fighting federal overreach in its appeal of part of the Katie John subsistence case.

The governor might be better off to think about the moral issue of what’s right, rather than the legal issue of states’ rights.

The Alaska Federation of Natives and other Native leaders responded angrily to the state’s announcement, which challenges the authority of the federal government to regulate subsistence fishing on navigable waters that would otherwise come under state control.

Native leaders said the state’s action is an assault on the subsistence rights of rural — mostly Native — Alaskans who depend on fish, game and gathering to sustain their lives and culture.

There is long and bitter history here. In the most recent past, Congress decided in 1980 that rural Alaskans should have a subsistence preference to fish and game in times of shortage. Alaska managed its fish and game that way until 1989. That’s when the state Supreme Court ruled that a rural preference was unconstitutional, that all Alaskans had equal subsistence rights no matter where they live.

That’s one of those rulings that had a legal basis and looks good on paper but doesn’t pass muster in the real world.

The rural preference made sense then and makes sense now. Those who live in Bush Alaska are, by and large, most dependent on Alaska’s fish and game, regardless of race or heritage. But for Alaska Natives, subsistence rights are at the core of justice, culture, identity and respect.

A rural preference would meet both day-to-day and deeper needs for Natives and non-Natives.

But numerous attempts at putting a constitutional amendment for rural preference on the ballot failed for more than a decade after 1989 — sometimes narrowly. Legislative special sessions, the exhortations of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, even a campaign by a coalition of state business leaders failed to sufficiently move lawmakers to act.

Subsistence became the centerpiece of the “urban-rural divide,” and that was sometimes a polite euphemism for “Native-white divide.”

The state’s failure to amend the constitution resulted in the federal takeover of subsistence regulation on state lands.

Finally, in 2001, Gov. Tony Knowles met with Mentasta elder Katie John and decided not to pursue further state appeals. The strongest basis for his decision was simple — that Native subsistence rights should be respected, and if the state wouldn’t do it, then the feds would, and so be it. Even then, Knowles and others much preferred state management of all our fish and game, but not at the price of further bitter division and an erosion of Native and rural subsistence.

That was the right call.

The state argues that it’s simply asserting its sovereignty. But for Alaska Natives, it’s a step backwards from subsistence rights — rights that the state has refused to recognize, rights that Uncle Sam has upheld.

Had Alaska done the right thing and passed a rural subsistence preference, it would have that sovereignty now.

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