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Compass: Gov. Parnell should work for subsistence amendment

Anyone familiar with the state's recent political history knows that the Alaska Native people -- some 108,800 strong, according to the latest Census figures -- have spent decades working to protect our subsistence way of life. Subsistence hunting and fishing have defined our traditional culture since time immemorial. Its preservation unites our people like nothing else. It is safe to say that securing legal protections for our subsistence way of life is directly linked to the very survival of Alaska Natives.

Gov. Sean Parnell is aware of this priority and has often talked about his administration's support for the traditional Alaska Native way of life. At last October's AFN Convention in Fairbanks, the governor told the thousands of Alaska Natives assembled:

"... Traditional family values means ensuring Alaskans can feed their families. Traditional family values include the dignity derived from being the family provider, both from subsistence activities, as well as from earning a paycheck. ... Today, and every day, we affirm that the ancient traditions still matter. Your governor and our administration have walked beside you to assure that these traditions and your identity remain strong."

Given Gov. Parnell's recent commitment to "walk beside us," Alaska Natives from Unalaska to Nome were dismayed by his recent State of the State address. In it, he urged the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment onto voters that would allow state funding to follow students with them to private schools. Given that the only possible resolution of the subsistence crisis is the adoption of a constitutional amendment by the Legislature, his move to champion a controversial "voucher bill" instead could only be interpreted by this state's first people as the governor walking away from any commitment he might have made to "assuring that (our) traditions and identities remain strong."

The bill that the governor wants moved to the people for a vote is SJR 9, a bill which has stalled in committee due to a lack of support from legislators and school officials throughout Alaska. To be clear, AFN supports private education opportunities and trusts that parents will make decisions that they feel are best for their children, yet we share others' concern for the erosion of support for public schools.

While making his case for this constitutional amendment, the governor complained, "since this Supreme Court decision was handed down in 2002, discussion of school choice in Alaska has gone largely unaddressed."

With all due respect to the governor's concern about inaction on school choice for 11 years, the Alaska Native people have waited for more than 30 years for meaningful state action on the conflict surrounding our subsistence rights. The state's longstanding lack of leadership and outright obstruction of progress on this conflict have resulted in costly lawsuits and widespread food and cultural insecurity for our people.

Ever since President Carter signed the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which enacted a "rural preference" meant to allow Alaska Natives to continue to enjoy our subsistence way of life, we have been left in a legal limbo because the state Constitution grants equal access to the state's resources by all Alaskans, not just rural residents.

This constitutional conflict has created a confusing patchwork of jurisdictions -- one that grants a rural preference to Natives hunting and fishing on federal lands, and a second with no such protection for these activities on state-controlled lands. This puts Alaska Natives at risk of being arrested and jailed for attempting to hunt and fish to feed our families.

Despite three special sessions of the Legislature in the 1990s, gubernatorial initiatives and numerous legislative attempts to pass a subsistence constitutional amendment to voters for ratification, this vital struggle to preserve our people's way of life remains unresolved.

If Gov. Parnell remains true to his commitment to "walk beside (Alaska Natives) to assure that these traditions and our identity remain strong," then it is long past time that he urge our legislators to allow Alaska voters to resolve the subsistence conflict that has plagued this state for more than 30 years.

Julie Kitka is president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.