Kookesh: Restore Native rights

Senator says Natives may have to sue feds for subsistence issues

Posted: Sunday, October 11, 2009

State Sen. Albert Kookesh believes Alaska Natives may be forced to file a class action lawsuit against the federal government to restore the subsistence rights it promised under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Kookesh, D-Angoon, who is facing trial over a $500 state subsistence fishing citation, gave a video statement Friday to the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood 97th Grand Camp Convention that criticized the state for trampling on subsistence rights. He was in Washington, D.C. for much of the five-day convention.

"We need to get away from the state as much as we can," he said. "They are not our friend. They've proven that time and time again. Let's make the federal government responsible and sue them if we have to."

The majority of Friday was spent discussing subsistence issues, something Grand Camp leaders said has not been a focus at the convention for awhile. The delegates passed numerous resolutions at the end of the day related to subsistence and Native rights.

Kookesh said he is fervently fighting for subsistence rights and federal rights to be recognized, not just because he got cited for overfishing.

"We have to band together to get our subsistence rights back," he said. "We've lost it somewhere along the way. We have to focus on that. I'm asking all of you to step up and do this, not for me, not for the other three guys in Angoon, but for everybody else in this state."

Kookesh, Stanley D. Johnson, Rocky L. Estrada Sr., and Scott T. Hunter were cited for illegally harvesting 73 sockeye on July 12 in Kanalku Bay near Angoon.

There are as many as 3,000 to 5,000 citations in Alaska out there right now against people just because they were trying to subsist, Kookesh said.

"It's morally wrong," he said. "It may be legally right in parts of the state, but it's morally wrong. We need to focus on that, change it so it's legally wrong too."

Alaska Natives own 45.5 million acres of land and should not be subject to state law because of the federal government's commitment through the ANILCA agreement, Kookesh said.

"We need to start all over again with federal subsistence without the state involvement," he said. "If they wanted to be involved they should have adopted a constitutional amendment when we asked them to a couple of years ago."

Bob Loescher, chairman of the Grand Camp subsistence committee, said the state shows a preference to commercial interests when it comes to natural resources when ANILCA clearly states that the priority should be given to Alaska Natives and rural people for subsistence.

"They are setting aside our priority and what we have is a disproportionate allocation between the commercial fisheries and the traditional and customary hunting, fishing, gather access to our fishery resources, which we've used for thousands of years," he said. "That is not right."

The 15-fish sockeye limit for subsistence permits from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game is "ridiculous" when many people in villages rely on salmon for part of their diet, Loescher said.

"We need to stop this because if we told people in Juneau that they could only have 15 chickens or 15 pieces of pork or 15 pieces of beef per family per year, how would they like it?" he said.

Alaska Natives have been disrespected time and time again by repeatedly ignoring petitions brought before the ADF&G Board of Fisheries and Board of Game, Loescher said.

Carrie Sykes, the subsistence coordinator for the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, said there are a lot of racial stereotypes associated with the issue. Some people say that Alaska Natives wouldn't need subsistence if they got jobs.

"Subsistence is the Native economy," she said.

State and federal regulations have increased over the past decade that have hampered subsistence for Natives and tribes do not have the financial resources to address the issues, Sykes said.

"There is some really heavy handed enforcement and it's happening in the communities that are very economically disadvantaged and it's just really wrong," she said.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

References to a piece of legislation in paraphrased comments attributed to Sen. Albert Kookesh and Bob Loescher have been corrected.

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