Dried salmon savored by rural Alaska Natives as part of a subsistence way of life won’t be found among the Spanish tapas, Brazilian steaks, or Southern barbecue served in the restaurants of Jacksonville, Florida. Indeed, the differences between Jacksonville (pop. 821,700) and, say, the Yukon River village of Grayling (pop. 213) couldn’t be more profound.
Situated at opposite ends of a continent and defined by unique histories, cultures, and customs, Jacksonville and Grayling (or for that matter Huslia, Nulato, Allakaket or any other of a sparse constellation of rural Athabascan communities) might just as well exist on separate planets.
So who could have predicted those planets would align at, of all places, the Alaska Board of Game’s mid-November statewide meeting in Anchorage? Certainly no one left the gathering more changed and enlightened than members of Jacksonville-based animal rights group OneProtest.
And few attended the meeting with more at stake than a group of Native students from Alaska’s far reaches, there to tackle cultural barriers and preserve a traditional way of life.
Of particular concern were Proposals 14 and 15 which aimed to halt customary and traditional bear harvest practices existing in a handful of remote Interior game management units. Proposal 14 sought to prohibit the taking of bears in dens while Proposal 15, crafted and submitted by OneProtest, would have removed exceptions for the taking of cub bears and sows with cubs.
Misled by social media campaigns and poorly researched news reports that accompanied last April’s repeal of federal wildlife regulations on Alaska’s national refuges, OneProtest supported a ban on both bear harvest practices, calling them “clearly not socially sustainable.” Activists gathered more than 23,000 signatures backing the bans. Committed to their cause and certain in their opinions, two OneProtest representatives flew in from Florida to advocate their position to the board in person.
Meanwhile, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Tribal Management Program had teamed with the Tanana Chiefs Conference to address concerns that cultural and procedural barriers excluded rural Alaska Natives from the board’s rulemaking process. Observing that many rural Natives seemed to feel disenfranchised, unsure of how the Board of Game worked or that they as individuals could make differences in rulemaking outcomes, the UAF Tribal Management Program and TCC organized a class called “Introduction to the Board of Game,” to take place during the statewide meeting.
More than 20 students enrolled in the weeklong, one-credit class. And as the board meeting ramped up, they learned about local advisory committees and received training on crafting proposals. They listened as Division of Subsistence Director Hazel Nelson, herself originally from the small Alaska Peninsula village of Egegik, stepped in to provide tips on how to prepare and provide effective public testimony. During meeting breaks, students mingled and met with board members, Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff, and other attendees.
Listening intently, reading through proposal documents and absorbing oral testimony, the students learned. Threatened by change from the opposing values of large, signature-gathering, Outside groups, their traditional subsistence ways of life — their culture — depended upon this knowledge.
All seemed to go smoothly until early in the week when, during a break in public testimony, the rural Native students encountered the OneProtest activists in the Lakefront Anchorage Hotel lobby.
And that’s when it happened.
The two groups began talking. Why, the students asked, would people travel all the way from Florida to oppose customary and traditional activities practiced for generations in a few specific areas of Interior Alaska?
Bears, the students explained, have always provided fresh meat in winter when other game can be difficult to obtain. And Native hunters are obligated by tradition to take all occupants of a den; to not do so is to disrespect the animals that reveal themselves for harvest.
As the two groups engaged, lightbulbs seemed to switch on. The OneProtest group welcomed what the students had to say and many misperceptions were cleared up on the spot. In fact, after those discussions and listening to more public comments made to the board, the One Protest members began reconsidering their stance.
After the break, the students prepared to testify before the board and assembled public. The number of people in the room rivaled the total populations of some smaller villages. Nonetheless, the students overcame their apprehensions and shared fresh, heartfelt testimony to a board eager to hear new voices.
“Eliminating a longstanding customary and traditional harvesting practice is wrong,” said Arnold Demoski of Nulato. “Taking away a food source is wrong. This traditional knowledge has been passed on for generations and generations. … Our ancestors have had a very strong connection with animals and we still do to this day. We do not disrespect any animals of any kind.”
Ivan Demientieff, of Grayling, echoed Demoski’s concerns, “I am opposing this proposal because this may affect my traditional values.”
One by one, students approached the board to testify, their words embraced by the room in a focused silence. When they finished and the matter returned to the board, Vice-Chairman Nate Turner seemed moved. He praised not only the students for speaking, but OneProtest for listening.
“(OneProtest has) a strong position that they take on wildlife issues in America and they were sure that they’d caught something really bad and they invested a lot of time and resources into correcting it,” Turner said.
“But they did the right thing in educating themselves, and the noble thing in sharing those results with us and also saying they were going to go back home and educate other people about what’s really happening here in Alaska.”
Turner and other board members who spoke afterward added that local knowledge is especially powerful and important for the board process to work. Participation is the key to a good public process.
The proposals to ban existing traditional bear hunting practices and remove exceptions failed in a unanimous board vote. OneProtest made public that they stood corrected, and have offered a video apology that ends with: “To the Alaskan native peoples, Pitsaqenrita. We apologize for any offense our initial misunderstanding caused.”
Alaska’s Native students should be proud. With the help of the UAF Tribal Management Program and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, they made this peaceful consensus possible. They earned college credit for their efforts, but more importantly, they’ve earned lasting respect from the Alaska Board of Game — and from an Outside group representing different cultural values who may have received the greatest education of all.
Sam Cotten is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.