An opportunity to resolve subsistence

My turn

Posted: Sunday, July 29, 2001

In coming weeks, Alaskans have a unique opportunity to take a positive step for Alaska's future by settling the divisive stalemate over subsistence.

In doing so, we can achieve three goals I believe most Alaskans agree on: 1) protect subsistence, which is so vital to the economy and culture of rural Alaska; 2) regain state management of our fish and game; and 3) bring Alaskans together.

That's why I am convening a Subsistence Leadership Summit in mid-August in Anchorage. I'm asking about three dozen Alaskan leaders from civic and public policy groups and subsistence stakeholders to focus on a single task - a long-term solution to this subsistence dilemma.

What gives us a renewed opportunity to resolve subsistence now is a court case named after the respected Athabascan elder Katie John, which she filed in 1990 to protect her subsistence rights on a tributary of the Copper River. The legal dispute is whether the federal government has jurisdiction over certain rivers and streams used for commerce and transportation in Alaska to protect federal subsistence rights.

The state of Alaska has lost the case six times in lower and appeals courts, and now we must decide whether to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court recently granted our request for a 60-day extension on our appeal so that Alaskans can discuss the case and its connection to a long-term subsistence solution.

For 12 years, Alaskans have been at odds over how to protect the unique subsistence way of life lived by generations of rural and Native Alaskans. The Legislature, which has exclusive powers to resolve it under our constitution, continually has failed to do so despite five special legislative sessions called by three different governors.

A year ago, eight urban state senators refused to give Alaskans the opportunity to vote on amending our constitution to give rural Alaskans priority access to fish and game. Their actions surrendered management of our fish and game to the federal government and widened the divide between urban and rural Alaskans.

Such an amendment is widely supported by Alaskans, by our congressional delegation, by two-thirds of the state House, a majority of state senators and by business and civic leaders.

Katie John would never have had to file a lawsuit to protect her subsistence rights if the Legislature had allowed Alaskans a vote on a subsistence amendment. But now her case has taken on great symbolic importance.

Some consider it key to Alaska exerting its sovereignty. Others see it as the last stand in an increasingly bitter offensive against rural and Native Alaskans.

In mid July, I traveled by small plane, truck and four-wheeler to meet with Katie John, an 86-year-old mother of 14 who has almost 150 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

As we sat near a stream where her father and mother subsistence fished to feed their family, she relayed to me a simple yet compelling message. She only wants to protect her right to subsistence so she can raise her family the best way she knows how, in the way taught by her parents and earlier generations.

The subsistence way of life is important for all Alaskans, but it is crucial for our rural residents. I believe that unless the Legislature takes action to protect the rural subsistence priority with a state constitutional amendment, the Katie John lawsuit is a direct attack on Alaska Natives and other rural Alaskans.

The extension in the Katie John case will provide Alaskans time to focus more attention and a broader understanding of the implications of subsistence.

There is a way to protect the subsistence rights of Katie John, and other rural and Native Alaskans. There is a way to return management of Alaska's fish and game to Alaskans. There is a way to bridge the divide among Alaskans.

The solution to Alaska's subsistence dilemma is for the Alaska Legislature to give all Alaskans the opportunity to vote on an amendment to our constitution to protect rural subsistence.

My request to participants in next month's summit is to help all Alaskans devise the best course of action to accomplish these three goals we share.

Let us finally assume the responsibility and demonstrate the courage necessary to take this issue out of the federal courts, out of the federal agencies, and bring it home to Alaskans.

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