Activist begins hunger strike

Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2000

Desa Jacobsson is on a hunger strike - pledging not to consume anything but water - in an effort to change state and federal subsistence laws.

Unless she changes her mind, chances are she'll starve.

Jacobsson, an Alaska Native activist and the Green Party's 1998 candidate for governor, wouldn't say how far she was willing to go.

``It's not a question of starving myself,'' she said. ``That is not the issue.''

She said her point is to prompt the Legislature to change subsistence laws to allow all Alaska Natives the right to subsistence hunt and fish without restriction. Urban areas, such as Juneau, have been excluded from subsistence hunting and fishing since 1992.

Jacobsson, who demonstrated on the steps of the Capitol on Monday, said she wants to bring attention to subsistence laws and try to put pressure on the Legislature to change them. Specifically, she wants subsistence hunting and fishing allowed in Ketchikan and Juneau.

This is not Jacobsson's first subsistence protest. She and four other Juneau women were charged with fishing without a permit last year after they caught sockeye salmon in a closed pond near the Mendenhall Glacier. She was also arrested about 10 years ago for subsistence fishing in closed waters elsewhere in the state.

Jacobsson said she decided to start her hunger strike after seeing herself referred to as a ``criminal defendant'' in court papers last week. ``I am not a criminal Native woman,'' she said. ``I have a right to a subsistence lifestyle.''

Under federal law, the criteria for subsistence hunting and fishing include a population cap of 7,000. State criteria don't have such a cap, but have led to the exclusion of seven areas in the state, including Juneau and Ketchikan.

In the Congressional history underlying current federal subsistence regulations, which allow for a rural preference for subsistence, Juneau, Ketchikan, Fairbanks and Anchorage are specifically noted as examples of urban Alaska. That would make it particularly difficult to change the federal laws.

Jacobsson, however, said preventing Alaska Natives from practicing subsistence prevents fathers and mothers from passing on their culture. Without that teaching, she said, Alaska Natives will lose touch with their heritage.

``That knowledge is the basis of who we are, and that is what will die,'' she said.

The Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood support Jacobsson's stand.

``We're supporting the hunger strike,'' said Ralph Knudson, first vice president of the ANB. ``Our younger generation really isn't getting the training that's needed due to the restrictions the state has imposed on us.''

Rob Bosworth, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that even if there was the political will to change the law, it would take a long time.

``I hope she has a backup plan,'' he said. ``She's asking for changes in both state and federal law. It's not clear to me what kind of support there is for that.''

In a special session last year, state lawmakers were unable to resolve differences between state and federal subsistence rules. Legislative leaders have said they do not expect a resolution this year.

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