Politics, prayers and Native pride were prominent at We The People, a march and rally in downtown Juneau on Thursday. Native recognition and subsistence were at the heart of the event.
"We hunt and fish not for sport, but to feed ourselves," said Frank White, leader of the Wolf house of Hoonah. "We do not hang the heads of animals, or the fish, on the walls of our living rooms."
White and a half-dozen other speakers stood in the middle of Fourth Street in a light drizzle and addressed about 80 people gathered on the Capitol steps. The march began at 11 a.m. at the Mount Roberts Tramway station. The group paused at Sealaska Plaza to say the Lord's Prayer and sing the Tlingit national anthem.
Police closed the street to traffic and escorted marchers as curious tourists and other onlookers gathered to listen. One officer stopped en route to briefly explain subsistence and the debate about a rural priority to a passer-by.
The Legislature has struggled unsuccessfully for years to resolve the subsistence conflict. A state constitutional amendment would be required to bring the state into compliance with the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which requires a rural subsistence priority. The state's constitution mandates equal access to resources.
Participants in the We the People rally would like to see that conflict resolved with a rural priority, which often is characterized as a Native priority. This is the fifth year the We The People event has been held to highlight the issue. About 2,500 marchers gathered in Anchorage on Thursday for a similar rally.
David Katzeek of Hoonah Spirit Camp addressed the Juneau crowd in Tlingit and English, and quoted from the Book of Genesis and from Tlingit traditions. He said subsistence is about more than food, just as being Tlingit is about more than a moosehide vest or a Chilkat blanket.
White said he and his brothers and sisters were raised by their grandparents in the old ways, and taught to put up food from Mother Earth.
"Living off the land is a God-given right. A God-given right," he said. "Subsistence ties us to our ancestors and provides a bond for our future generations. This is a greater value that lies in the sacred and social life of our people."
Tim Grussendorf, a commercial fisherman and a Democratic candidate for the Mendenhall Valley seat in the state House of Representatives, said he marched because he wants to see some progress made on subsistence. He said he was not formally invited but participated because of his interest in the issue.
Native veterans, members of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, the Alaska Native Sisterhood and members of Tlingit-Haida Central Council marched behind a banner referring to subsistence since statehood proclaiming "40 years of broken promises."
Jessie Schoonover joined the march as a representative of the Native Lands Department of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council. But as a mother of two and the daughter of a commercial fisherman from Hoonah, she said it's a personal issue as well.
"It's very important that we stand up for our rights and the future rights of our children," she said.
Speakers also included Juneau state Sen. Kim Elton and Rep. Beth Kerttula, both Democratic candidates for re-election this year, 93-year-old Tlingit elder Cecilia Kunz, ANB President Richard Jackson, and Juneau Assembly member Randy Wanamaker. No other local political candidates spoke.
"We have a legislative culture here that just says no," said Elton. "We're trained to say no, and we've said no on subsistence. It's time we started saying yes, yes to teaching Alaska history in schools, not just history since the Gold Rush, but Alaska history, and yes to subsistence."
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