Politicians, lawyers and interest groups of every stripe have been in the trenches of Alaska's subsistence debate for more than two decades.
On Dec. 10 the Catholic church took a first cautious step into the fray over who should get first crack at fish and game resources in times of shortage.
At a listening forum entitled "Subsistence Through the Lens of Catholic Social Teaching," the three bishops of the state heard the faith-informed views of eight Catholics from Anchorage, Eagle River, Juneau, North Pole, Yakutat, Newtok, Bethel and Kenai. The bishops plan to incorporate the viewpoints into the process of writing a formal document, or pastoral letter, on subsistence, said Archbishop Roger Schwietz of Anchorage. Retired Archbishop Francis Hurley, Bishop Michael Warfel of Juneau and Jesuit Father Richard Case of Fairbanks joined him at the forum and will take part in writing the pastoral letter.
The speakers included three Alaska Natives, two recreational sportsmen, a Kenai River salmon guide, a school nurse in Bethel, and a Juneau lawyer.
Joseph Beaty of Eagle River, an avid sports fisherman, said he considers each fish he catches a "gift from God."
"As a man, I would not happily give up my right to fish," he said. "As a Christian, if faced with the choice of my having fish just for the recreation of it versus a family that had a need for the same fish for survival, I wouldn't fish."
Beaty said that although people are equal in God's eyes, human societies need laws to govern certain situations, such as when one person's rights infringe upon another's. The Catholic principal of solidarity, or considering what serves the common good, should apply in such cases, he said.
Terry Marquette of North Pole also addressed the notion of equality, saying that the Alaska Constitution demands it and that any mandated subsistence preference would pit Alaskans against one another.
Marquette, a North Pole taxidermist, questioned whether the church should even take a position on subsistence.
"Recognizing the church has the responsibility of dealing with government regarding moral issues, I am hard pressed to find a relationship between subsistence and issues like abortion, the death penalty, stem cell research, cloning and euthanasia," he said.
But religion is the last remaining place for indigenous people to turn for help in achieving justice, said another speaker, Teddy Mayac.
"The solution of this debate has been relegated to the political arena.
This is an affront on human decency," said Mayac, an Inupiak elder from King Island who now resides in Anchorage. He said that the influence and moral teachings of the Catholic church and other churches "have become the indigenous peoples' last hope" because the government has so often gone back on its word.
All the speakers except Marquette made it clear that the church's preferential option for the poor applies to subsistence in that those who need the resources to survive deserve a priority. But differences emerged over whether the priority should be based on geography, race or need, and on whether cultural survival counted as much as physical survival.
Each speaker had eight minutes to address the bishops and Father Case, who administered the Fairbanks Diocese after its bishop, Michael Kaniecki, died in August 2000.
A pastoral letter on subsistence would be the Catholic church's first formal statement on the issue. Both the Orthodox and Episcopal churches in Alaska have official positions favoring a Native subsistence priority as well as Native sovereignty.
"We're attempting to assist our people in engaging the issue," Archbishop Hurley said at the end of the forum. "But we're very careful about not telling our people how to vote."