Fishermen cited for breaking a subsistence fishing ban on the Lower Kuskokwim River should never have been fined, Sen. Lisa Murkowski told a crowd of hundreds Friday at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, speaking at a forum about hunting and fishing rights and other issues, also criticized recent sanctions against an Alaska Native artist fined for using raven parts and other feathers in his contemporary artwork.
"I think this has been an embarrassment for how our government and our federal agencies ignore the traditions and cultures of our first people," Murkowski said.
Subsistence -- the question of who gets the first opportunity to hunt and fish for food -- is once again the marquee issue of the convention. On Friday, Young and Murkowski appeared to pick sides, telling delegates from villages across Alaska they are seeking to defend or expand existing subsistence rights for Alaska Natives.
Murkowski pledged to hold a congressional hearing on the issue, an action requested in a draft resolution proposed this year by the AFN board. Delegates will vote on that resolution and more than 40 others Saturday.
More than 20 subsistence fishermen facing citations or criminal misdemeanors have refused to plead guilty to illegally fishing for king salmon in June.
Young told the crowd that riverside villages have been asked to make all the sacrifices to conserve salmon, saying that limits on the number of salmon the pollock fleet should be allowed to kill as bycatch should be "much, much, much, much lower." He repeated support for a plan, outlined in a speech to the convention Thursday, that would allow representatives of Yukon River villages to manage king salmon fishing on that river.
Tlingit artist Archie Cavanaugh made headlines earlier in the week when he said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service charged him with violation of federal laws for selling artwork that used feathers from a raven and a robin-sized bird known as a flicker. Cavanaugh settled the case by agreeing to pay a $2,000 fine.
Murkowski and Young criticized the sanctions.
"To make innocent people criminals because of laws that either, in my view, are wrong or are being interpreted wrongly, that's wrong in and of itself," Murkowski said.
The AFN board has proposed a resolution calling for Alaska Natives to be allowed to "sell their traditional handicrafts containing feathers or parts of migratory birds."
Young said he's hoping to win enough support to pass legislation that says members of cultural or ethnic groups that have traditionally used parts of animals for cultural purposes can continue to do so as long as they did not kill the animal to obtain the parts. For example, a Tlingit artist who found a dead raven might be allowed to use the wings in artwork.
Murkowski told the group D.C. policymakers sometimes fail to understand Alaska Native issues.
"We're working with the State Department to make sure that we can continue to allow the whale hunts up north. But they don't get it," she said. "They have no understanding as to why you would want to harvest a whale in the first place."
The remarks came during a two-hour session that also focused on rural energy costs, education and health care. Sen. Mark Begich is scheduled to address the convention at 2:15 p.m. Saturday, the final day of the meeting.
Pressed for change
By KYLE HOPKINS