My turn column: Sit down together and solve subsistence

Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2001

Last week, I had the honor of attending the governor's Subsistence Summit in Anchorage. The most important thing I learned is that the divide between Native and non-Native Alaskans is real, bitter and growing worse. The Native community views rural subsistence as a basic test of whether today's Alaska can incorporate and respect their traditional lifestyles and culture. Subsistence is important to many in Alaska, but for Native people in rural communities subsistence literally defines who they are. It is the way they have lived for thousands of years and includes traditions that hold families and cultures together.

The issue is whether the state is willing to make a binding commitment to the rural Native community to respect their way of life, not just because the federal government will take over fish and game management in most of our state if we don't, but because it is the right thing to do. It was the nearly unanimous view at the subsistence summit that passing a state constitutional amendment allowing for a rural preference for subsistence use was a critical first step in reaching out across the divide to the Alaska Native community so as to assure them that even in an increasingly urbanized Alaska their values will be respected.

Though the vast majority of Alaskans support the passage of a constitutional amendment for a rural subsistence preference, a small number of legislators have been successful in blocking any action. Instead, we have engaged in endless litigation about the terms of federal legislation that require a rural preference. There are a number of things wrong with this approach. First, it won't work. The recent Katie John case, for instance, involves how much state water the federal government may control in order to enable it to protect subsistence on public lands. Even if the state wins, the decision will have no effect on the basic federal power to manage subsistence. Second, it puts the state on the wrong side of the issue. Why should we be in court trying to deny an Athabascan elder her right to feed her family when most Alaskans believe that her right to do so should be protected? And most important, why are we in court at all? We can protect the rights of Katie John and make sure that the state manages our fish and game simply by the adoption of a constitutional amendment.

While the state has stood still and done nothing effective to solve the subsistence dilemma, the situation has changed radically beneath our feet. The federal government is right now managing fish and game in much of this state. Federal management was the issue that provoked statehood, and the loss of state authority is no less serious now than it was then. Equally serious, the Native community has been forced to look away from the state and to the federal government to protect its traditions.

I realize that dividing Alaskans into rural and urban for purposes of subsistence is to cleave with a dull ax. There are many examples of people who live in urban areas who depend on fish and game, and there are many persons who live in rural areas who don't. But after struggling for years to define who really "needs" subsistence for food, cultural and spiritual reasons, most people have come to realize that a rough approximation is the best we can hope for. I also realize that there are many, well-meaning Alaskans who believe the solution here goes beyond a constitutional amendment to include modifying some of the terms of federal law. But first and foremost, we need to establish a unity of purpose; to proclaim that it is our goal to protect rural subsistence and the Native traditions that thrive there and we must act soon. Daily, the federal presence grows more permanent daily our state becomes more and more divided.

The most meaningful moment of the summit for me occurred when I was sharing dinner with and old friend from Hoonah. I asked her why so many of the Native community were still asking the state to re-assert control in light of the fact that federal legislation already guaranteed the desired subsistence preference. "Because we're Alaskans," she said and then she stopped and looked at me as if there was nothing more to say. There wasn't. We can do this. It's time to stop the rhetoric, stop the posturing, sit down together and do it.


Avrum Gross of Juneau is a former attorney general of Alaska.

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