Gov. Knowles fosters discord on Katie John

Guest editorial

Posted: Wednesday, September 05, 2001

The following editorial appeared Aug. 29 in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

It wasn't so long ago that Gov. Tony Knowles stood in front of the Tanana Chiefs Conference and bravely declared that if Alaska loses the Katie John case, "...we lose navigable waters to the federal government and, with it, Alaska's ability to control her destiny in so many areas."

He went on to say, "No governor of any state, me included, can surrender this power to the federal government." Over the years, Knowles repeatedly has promised - starting with his 1994 campaign for governor - that he would pursue all possible avenues in this landmark case even if that meant appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What a difference a little time and a lot of political pressure can make.

For the past few months, Knowles has been posturing himself to reverse his earlier position. On Monday, with his announcement that he would not appeal the John case to the Supreme Court, he completed the transition.

While announcing his decision, Knowles said that he has since concluded that pursuing the John case is "not in the best interest of Alaska." He added that "We must stop a losing legal strategy that threatens to make a permanent divide among Alaskans."

Yes, the Katie John case has, in fact, been divisive. The Native community understandably has rallied behind Katie John, the Mentasta elder whose name has become synonymous with the on-going fight over what it means to have a subsistence priority.

But the case isn't that simple, and it isn't just about subsistence. The overarching issue - the issue that should be most important to every Alaskan - is whether or not the state has final control of its waters or if that power belongs to the federal government.

Somewhere along the line, an insidious message crept in that only managers in Washington, D.C., could protect the subsistence way of life. Perhaps Gov. Knowles believes Alaska is not capable of protecting its own, or only capable of doing so under federal guidance.

We fear the rhetoric about divisiveness, a state divided and ill will toward Native interests will prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the exception of a few highly publicized and regrettable instances, Alaskans as a whole respect and strive to understand many cultures. We cherish our connections to Interior villages and wish for swift resolutions to our political differences. Yet the governor's office repeats the message that there is war. To what end?

The lawsuit is, at its most basic, an issue of state sovereignty. By failing to take this case to its final and logical conclusion, Knowles is denying Alaskans their last chance to exert control of our own lands and waters.

The News-Miner continues to support allowing a popular vote on the question of amending the Alaska Constitution to provide a subsistence priority for rural and Native residents. But that should not have precluded appealing the John case to the Supreme Court. A constitutional amendment on subsistence priority has shaky support at best in the Legislature, and even if put before the voters and approved, we would continue to operate under a constant threat of federal court intervention.

Admittedly, the Katie John case has been a long and expensive one, with the state having nothing but a string of lost appeals to show for its efforts. But we've come this far, and the lower court that made those decisions has a long history of overturned rulings. Taking this case to the one judicial body that can give the final word on the case, the Supreme Court, would have been a logical last step.

A Supreme Court ruling, whatever that body might have decided, would have been the final word. By not pursuing this last avenue, Knowles is fostering the discord he says he wants to end. Neither side will have the final resolution a Supreme Court ruling would have provided, and we will forever be asking, "What if?"

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