ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Federation of Natives does not formally endorse gubernatorial candidates, but on Friday a packed crowd at its annual convention made it clear who they prefer.
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The audience saved its loudest applause for former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat with a reputation for siding with Natives on subsistence issues.
"A constitutional amendment to protect subsistence is not a divisive issue. It's a uniting issue," Knowles said. "There is nothing more important we could do than put into the fabric of our government the respect and the guarantee that we will always have a subsistence way of life."
The three main gubernatorial candidates, Knowles, Republican nominee Sarah Palin and independent Andrew Halcro, spoke during a candidates' forum at the federation's convention.
Subsistence was a centerpiece issue at the convention, with Natives discussing how government regulations are eroding their access to traditional hunting and fishing areas.
Palin has been endorsed by sportsmen's groups who often oppose Native groups on subsistence issues. She said she hoped to build mutual trust at the convention.
Palin told the crowd that other politicians have used subsistence to divide and polarize Alaskans. She said she would not undo subsistence equality provisions of the state constitution. Instead she would try to protect subsistence for those who need it most by adjusting regulations and aggressively killing predators.
Palin spoke of her mixed Native and white family, including her husband's Yup'ik grandmother, as an example of how Alaska can overcome the divisions between rural and urban residents.
"I look at Alaska as a family, and I want my own family to be used as an example of how it can work," Palin said.
Halcro said he supports a constitutional amendment to allow a rural priority, as a step toward the state's resuming control of hunting and fishing on federal lands.
The candidates agreed on a number of issues put to them by an AFN panel, including funding for power-subsidy programs, opposition to legislation forcing formation of borough governments, and support for Native hire on a future North Slope natural gas pipeline project.
The AFN does not usually endorse candidates for governor, and co-chairman Albert Kookesh said after the forum he didn't expect any endorsement this year.