ANCHORAGE - Gov. Tony Knowles was greeted with a smattering of applause Thursday as he addressed thousands of Alaska Natives gathered for the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention.
In his speech, Knowles focused on the "urban-rural divide," and told a packed ballroom at the Egan Convention Center in downtown Anchorage that the state's appeal of the Katie John decision had created a "painful dilemma" for him.
The governor angered many Natives by announcing in January that the state would appeal the U.S. District Court ruling that enforced the rural subsistence fishing priority contained in federal law.
"I know many Alaskans are angry because of the state's appeal," Knowles said. "Perhaps more than any other, this dilemma has been painful. But it is my ardent hope that we will continue, together, to resolve it in Alaska by Alaskans."
Knowles was applauded when he said he would try to add 40 village public safety officers over the next three years and establish a new program for 20 public safety constables, who are hired by villages and remain for their careers.
Knowles received the warmest applause when he talked about his administrative order last month that formally acknowledged the 227 tribes in Alaska recognized by the federal government.
"I was proud to sign that historic order. We know that was just a beginning and much remains to be done and I ask for your help in advancing this new government to government relationship," Knowles said.
Steven Ginnis, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, said relations with the governor have improved, but remain somewhat strained because of the Venetie Indian lands decision and the Katie John appeal.
In the Venetie decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the state's favor that the Athabaskan village of about 350 people could not be considered Indian country. The state argued that if Indian country existed in Alaska, it would create competing jurisdictions and cripple the state's ability to enforce regulations.
"This governor needs to remember that if it had not been for the Native people vote, he would not be in office," Ginnis said. "He needs to meet us halfway on some of these issues."
AFN endorsed Knowles' in the 1994 election.
Ginnis credited the governor for acting quickly when responding to the collapse of salmon runs in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and Norton Sound area.
Knowles' quick response was a help to Natives in his area, said Victor Nicholas, second chief of the Nulato Tribe.
"By declaring it a disaster area, he put some money there," said Nicholas, who owns a grocery store in Nulato.
However, it was obvious from the tepid response that Natives haven't forgiven the governor, said Nicholas.
"People are disappointed and mad at him that he challenged the Katie John case," Nicholas said. "We need to run our lives. ... All it boils down to is self-determination."