Marching to put food on the table

Rallies in Juneau and Anchorage draw more than 2,000 calling for subsistence rights

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

For a while on Tuesday the sun broke through the clouds, and tourists emerged from shops to watch Alaska Natives take to the streets in a rally for subsistence rights.

California tourist Anne Brown stood on South Franklin Street as the throng of about 150 people marched by, some wearing traditional Tlingit robes and singing in their Native tongue.

"This isn't on the tour," Brown said to her companion. "This is the real stuff."

Emotions ran high as Native leaders delivered sometimes passionate speeches on the Capitol steps - the rally site of the fourth annual march called We The People: Standing Our Ground. A similar march in Anchorage drew 2,000 people.

"This is our land, we've lived off it since time began. All we want to do is continue to live off the land the way our forefathers did," said Franko Williams Jr. before a Juneau crowd that bore signs saying "Subsistence - Our Culture," and "Subsistence Existence."

Juneau resident Selina Everson appealed to political leaders to preserve the subsistence way of life.

"Once again, Gov. Knowles, we are at your doorstep - hear our voice. The Legislature - hear our voice," Everson said. "My grandchildren love the food. No one can take the taste from their mouth. No one can take it away from them, except laws they might enact. So we are here again."

Everson later said she wanted Knowles to stop appealing a lawsuit bearing the name of Native elder Katie John, a rural resident who triggered a court battle by defying state subsistence law.

Although federal law gives rural residents first dibs on subsistence fish and game, state law does not. The Alaska Constitution guarantees all residents equal access to state resources.

In response to a ruling from the Katie John lawsuit, the federal government took over management of subsistence fisheries on its land in Alaska to protect the rural priority provision. The state has lost its appeals so far, and Knowles has until Oct. 4 to decide whether to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Juneau group Territorial Sportsmen wants Knowles to appeal the lawsuit to regain state control of waters on federal land. Ron Somerville of the group walked by the parade as it moved up Main Street. Somerville noted that most of the marchers wouldn't qualify for the rural priority under federal law because they live in Juneau, an urban area.

"I think it's kind of a ruse that is perpetuated that all the Natives are going to get subsistence when in fact 35 to 40 percent of them live in the areas that are prohibited from participating," said Somerville, a delegate to a recent subsistence summit called by Knowles.

Somerville called the Katie John case a state sovereignty issue and said only the U.S. Supreme Court has the jurisdiction to resolve it. The president of Tlingit-Haida Central Council called that a myth.

"The Katie John case is a subsistence case, not a sovereignty case," the council's Ed Thomas told the crowd. "If it were not for the state being out of compliance with federal law, they would have total jurisdiction over the subsistence resources of those streams."

The rally drew some of Juneau's oldest and youngest Natives. Ian Petershoare, 17, took the microphone and spoke several lines in Tlingit, then thanked his grandparents for teaching him Native ways. Cecelia Kunz, 92, recalled school teachers tying a white rag in her hair as punishment every time she spoke Tlingit as a child.

"My head used to be all covered with white rags," said Kunz, prompting cheers from the crowd. "I just want you folks to know, to hear my voice, that I live on the Indian food and I live an Indian life. Even when I was in school."

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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