ANCHORAGE - The new chairman of the Board of Game is no stranger to angering Alaska Natives about his views on subsistence.
But this time he's raised their anger with a remark implying that Natives absent from a recent meeting may have been off drinking beer.
Ron Somerville, who became chairman just last month, apologized Wednesday for remarks he made at a game board meeting last month. He also said that the uproar in the Native community over the comments is a diversionary tactic.
Natives are opposed to a move by the game board to restrict subsistence hunts in the Nelchina basin north and east of Anchorage, including the popular caribou hunt.
Somerville said he was trying to lighten tension at the end of the meeting last month when he made his comment about beer drinking.
"If I offended somebody, I'm terribly, terribly embarrassed by that, if it was taken other than as just a way of breaking the tension and I apologize for that.
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I don't think I have to, to be honest with you, but if that's what happened and someone took it wrong ..." he said Wednesday.
A Native woman privately complained to him at the meeting that the comments were offensive, he said. He had not heard of any other complaints until now, he said.
The Alaska Federation of Natives voted Saturday to ask the U.S. Department of Justice, the Alaska Human Rights Commission and the state ombudsman to investigate the remarks.
If the remarks are deemed "inappropriate, discriminatory, oppressive or discourteous," AFN will ask the state to pursue "corrective action," including removing Somerville, according to a resolution passed at the AFN convention.
Somerville made his remarks Oct. 7 after calling on three people in a row signed up to speak but who weren't there, according to a recording provided by game board staff.
The three were part of a group of more than 50 Alaska Natives from the Copper River-area who had been speaking throughout the day.
The Nelchina caribou hunt has been contentious for years, with many hunters saying it's unfair and excludes too many.
Some charged the board with wanting to restrict subsistence hunting to create a surplus of caribou, leaving enough to open a sport hunt for the first time in 17 years next year.
After the third speaker didn't show, Somerville said:
"There must have been a run on free beer or something."
Somerville called Donna Hicks of Copper Center to speak.
Hicks was present. "Don't like beer, Donna?" he asked.
Several Natives in the audience were offended.
"I was like, 'That was uncalled for, especially since he knew we were all Indians,' " said Tammany Straughn of Cantwell. "It's stereotyping, like, 'Oh they're drunken Indians.' That's the way I felt."
Board member Ben Grussendorf of Sitka "kind of stiffened up" when he heard the comment, he said.
There were about 45 people in the audience. About six Natives looked at each other, apparently questioning the remarks, he said.
"I think he meant it in jest, and it just didn't sit well," Grussendorf said.
For much of the 1980s, Somerville headed the pro-sport hunting and fishing Alaska Outdoor Council, leading efforts to overturn the state's old rural priority for subsistence.
In 1991, Gov. Wally Hickel suggested Somerville to head the Department of Fish and Game, touching off a statewide flurry of protests by Alaska Natives.
The appointment, ultimately rejected by the fish and game boards, was critical because the state was seeking new ways to provide subsistence hunting and fishing. The state's rural priority had been ruled unconstitutional in 1989.
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