Appeal turns AFN against governor

Group vows to fight state's decision to appeal ruling on Katie John subsistence suit

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2000

ANCHORAGE - The state's largest Native organization is condemning Gov. Tony Knowles for his plans to appeal a landmark subsistence lawsuit.

Meeting in Anchorage on Tuesday, leaders of the Alaska Federation of Natives vowed to do whatever is necessary to keep their rights from being eroded by a hostile state government.

Leaders of the Alaska Federation of Natives said the governor's decision last month to challenge the so-called ``Katie John'' ruling threatens their way of life, and must be fought vigorously at the federal level.

``We'll do what we have to do to protect our rights in this state,'' said Julie Kitka, AFN president.

Kitka said if Knowles doesn't back away from an appeal, the options include legal, political and economic actions. Among the possible economic responses is a spending boycott by Natives.

Charges dismissed against 1 protester

The Subsistence Five are now the Subsistence Four.

An illegal fishing charge against one of the five Native women arrested in August following a subsistence demonstration near the Mendenhall Glacier has been dismissed.

Renee Culp was dropped from the misdemeanor court case by stipulation of all parties involved, according to a memorandum by Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins.

``She wasn't actually involved in setting the net,'' said defense attorney Tom Wagner. ``She was chanting and singing on the sidelines, but not actually fishing. The state agreed she could be dismissed.''

Collins, however, denied a motion by the four other protesters - Desa Jacobsson, Wanda Culp, Jackie McLean, and Tracey Gonzalez - to dismiss the charges against them.

The five women were charged with fishing for salmon without a personal-use permit at Sockeye Pond, also called Dredge Lake, near Steep Creek in the Mendenhall Valley.

After being charged, they asked for the dismissal, alleging their rights under the Alaska and U.S. Constitutions are violated by regulations closing the creek to subsistence and personal-use fishing.

Collins' Friday ruling recognized the ``compelling evidence'' presented by the defendants that the preservation of Alaska Native culture is tied to continued access to fish and game resources.

However, Collins wrote that Steep Creek has been closed to all fishing since at least the early 1960s.

Although she showed some sympathy for their cause, Collins did not address the ``broad challenge'' the defendants addressed to the prohibition of fishing in other streams in Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka and Ketchikan. Instead, she confined her decision to Steep Creek only, writing that ``defendants present no convincing evidence that Steep Creek has sufficient escapement'' to allow any salmon harvest, even a limited one.

The defendants consider state and federal law at odds about subsistence fishing rights. However, Collins found no conflict when the laws are applied to the issue raised in this case. Rather, she found that ``sustained yield'' is the aim of both.

August's demonstration and the ensuing publicity have likely already produced their intended result, Collins wrote, ``focusing discussion and thought on the broad and complex questions surrounding subsistence needs of all Alaskans.'' However, she pointed out, it is the role of the Legislature, not the courts, to make laws.

Defendant Wanda Culp, however, said the point they hoped to make has slipped through the cracks.

``We challenged a non-existing law for customary and traditional usage, and the judge only saw that we broke an existing, inappropriate personal-use law,'' Culp said.

Jacobsson, a former Green party gubernatorial candidate and a leader of the demonstration, was at an Alaska Federation of Natives convention and could not be reached for comment. Jacobsson staged an additional subsistence protest through a hunger strike that lasted nearly a month until friends and family persuaded her to end the fast.

Trial of the remaining four defendants is scheduled for Feb. 28, said defense attorney Wagner.

But she said ``we're not going to make any hollow threats. When we go forward, it will be real and will have the backing of the entire Native community.''

The governor today responded

by saying the state's appeal was about sovereignty over state resources, not an attack on Native subsistence rights.

``The state's sovereignty over water, land and resources is not something I will barter away,'' Knowles said at a morning press conference.

AFN leaders spoke as members held an emergency meeting to start plotting a strategy to oppose the governor.

The Katie John appeal is ``the pot boiling over'' for Natives long unhappy with state government for failing to solve the divisive subsistence issue that has gone on for three decades, said Roy Huhndorf, who co-chairs the AFN.

Knowles is appealing a 1995 ruling of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case, which is named for an Athabascan elder denied a subsistence fish camp on the Copper River. The ruling established that the federal government had subsistence authority over most state waters in Alaska.

The federal government took over subsistence fishing management on those waters in October when the state Legislature failed to approve a constitutional amendment granting a subsistence priority to rural residents, as required under federal law.

Robert Loescher, president of Juneau-based Sealaska Corp., exhorted the AFN delegates to man the barricades.

``We should stand with Katie John, defend her rights and continue her fight in the direction it takes us in the days to come,'' Loescher said.

John, 84, who lives in Mentasta, received several standing ovations as she walked to the podium and told of her early years hunting and fishing in the southeastern Interior. She also lamented that many young people are not learning the traditional skills that define their Native culture.

``I think I was more happy than they are today,'' John said.

Loescher presented John with the Elizabeth Peratrovich Humanitarian and Civil Rights Award, named in honor of a Juneau woman who played a key role in passing civil rights legislation in 1945. Today is Elizabeth Peratrovich Day and was to be celebrated in Juneau with a midday march to the Capitol and a 6:30 p.m. program at the Tlingit and Haida Community Council building at Salmon Creek.

AFN delegates also voted to oppose returning subsistence jurisdiction to the state until state leaders, including the governor, agree to joint management by tribal entities.

Knowles spokesman Bob King said the governor's appeal is rooted in state sovereignty, not subsistence rights.

``Neither this governor nor any other governor would surrender management of subsistence,'' King said. ``It's a fundamental reason Alaskans sought statehood originally.

``(Knowles) supports the rights of Katie John the person to harvest the fish she needs,'' he said. ``But it would be best done under a state management regime.''

Kitka said AFN will approach Congress to strengthen the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and other federal laws to explicitly state the subsistence rights of Alaska Natives.

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