In June, a standoff unfolded in Western Alaska as Native fishermen who depend on salmon revolted over river closures. On the one side were state scientists trying to manage a dismal king salmon run on the Kuskokwim River for all Alaskans. On the other stood villagers who believe their rights trumped the state's closure as they tried to feed their families, just as they have done for hundreds of years.
Some villagers ignored the second of two back-to-back closures of the Kuskokwim, took to their boats and went fishing. That prompted Alaska State Troopers to descend on the river to seize dozens of nets and more than 1,000 pounds of fish. In the end, the state pursued charges against 61 fishermen for defying the closure, nearly a third whom now await trials scheduled to begin in November.
This dispute dominated the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, which wrapped up in Anchorage on Saturday. Once again Alaskans are grappling with the question, do Native people have an inherent right to hunt and fish the lands and streams their ancestors relied on?
A messy, multi-jurisdictional and confusing system of enforcement over their subsistence rights has many Alaska Natives believing now more than ever the solution lies in taking matters into their own hands. They want to exercise their right to self-determination through control of their homelands and the fish and game that populate it.
On Saturday, AFN passed a resolution calling to amend the state constitution to "recognize Alaska Native subsistence and tribal rights." It also calls for rural Alaskans to be "equitably recognized."
But resolutions from AFN and active resistance can only go so far.
In the end, laws and court decisions – state and federal – have shaped what amounts to an evolving social experiment that began in 1971. That year, President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), creating the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history. Along with 44 million acres, the settlement act provided nearly $1 billion to establish corporations owned by the various tribes and 12 geographically defined Native regions of Alaska.
Rather than creating Indian reservations, as in the Lower 48, ANCSA attempted to offer a new way forward, allowing in many cases Alaska Natives to continue living on their lands, while creating an economic future in the cash economy.
Yet, subsistence has remained a gray zone for Natives.
In 1956, the Alaska Constitution was passed and would solidify a state perspective that all Alaskans were to have equal access to fish and game resources, effectively eliminating racial- or rural-based allocation and priorities. Fifteen years later, ANCSA would extinguish Alaska Natives' aboriginal hunting and fishing rights. Then, a second piece of federal legislation – the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) -- passed in 1980, attempting to restore subsistence rights. Ever since, Alaska Natives have lived with the innate knowledge that they were free to live off the land as they always have, frustrated by the reality that in the political world of those who colonized Alaska, their status has been constricted and controlled.
Today, Alaska Natives practice subsistence, often with an implied preference under the law. But state and federal management of fish and game at times comes into direct conflict, as was the case on the Kuskokwim River in summer. Meanwhile, non-Natives argue that they too have rights under the law to hunt and fish, and that those rights are no less important than those afforded to Alaska's indigenous residents.
Will Indian Country and Alaska -- battling for decades now -- ever work it out?
Beware the government
Calling on Alaska's congressional delegation to help put an end to the cultural strife and legal entanglements Natives experience trying to gather food in the state, AFN has found allies -- at least verbally -- among the state's highest elected officials.
At this year's convention, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski criticized the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for recent operations that caused salmon fisherman to lose their nets and face fines, as well as a Tlingit artist who recently faced federal charges for using bird feathers to make a traditional mask.
"This has been an embarrassment for how our government and federal agencies ignore the traditions and culture of our first people," Murkowski said. "We should not have fined those people. We should not be making criminals out of artists."
"Beware the government," U.S. Rep. Don Young warned the Alaska Native community on Friday. Young, Alaska's lone congressman, is supportive of giving Natives the ability to manage their own fish and game on the 44 million acres entitled to them under ANCSA.
"The state will not like this," he added, AFN's crowd erupting in applause.
At the conference, Murkowski promised to hold hearings, while Young said he was working on legislation that would give Alaska Natives more freedom to develop their lands without permitting, as well as pursue a bill to give members of the Ahtna Inc. Native regional corporation headquartered in Glennallen control of their lands, with the ability to keep trespassing moose and caribou hunters out. He also is working on legislation to legalize the use of scavenged eagle and raven feathers in cultural art.
Still, Murkowski and Young were thin on concrete ways by which the modern Alaska Native political agenda might be realized. Neither of them at AFN pledged to push for the repeal of the extinguishment of Native hunting and fishing rights under ANCSA, a move sought by Alaska's Native community.
Food supply of rural Alaska
"After 20 years, Alaska Natives continue to struggle for their aboriginal hunting and fishing rights and their right to manage their lands," said attorney John Sky Starkey, who has worked on behalf of the Native community on subsistence matters for decades.
Starkey, who attended AFN, said he's struck by the continued failure of state and federal governments to right the broken promises made to Alaska Natives years ago. "This was their country first. You don't just walk in and rip something away from people and say we are all equal."
What's more, the harm in granting Alaska Natives stewardship of fish and game on their lands is minimal, he said. Statistics from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game support this argument.
Data published by the department in 2010 shows that 98.3 percent of all harvested resources were by commercial interests. Subsistence and personal use accounted for only 1.1 percent, and sports use a mere 0.6 percent. Non-Natives are included alongside Alaska Natives as the rural cultural groups utilizing wild food resources for food, clothing, fuel, transportation, construction, art, crafts, sharing and customary trade.
"Though relatively small in the statewide picture, subsistence fishing and hunting provide a major part of the food supply of rural Alaska," notes the publication. "By and large, urban fishers and hunters have not experienced major changes in harvest opportunities due to the subsistence priority."
When it comes to looking at how dependent the state's rural communities are on wild foods, Fish and Game's numbers are telling. Western Alaska is the most heavily reliant on wild foods, with 100 percent of families using fish and 90 percent using game. Statistics for the population with the lowest consumption, Alaska's Interior, are still high: 92 percent of families use fish, 88 percent use game.
Because the subsistence take is so low compared to the total harvest of fish and game across the state in a given year, Starkey believes opposition to acknowledgment of Native rights is less about concrete realities and more of a "symbolic or theoretical" loss, an emotional reaction that somehow they are not being treated equal.
Yet, in a state where only one of the 55 delegates that crafted the Alaska Constitution was Alaska Native, Starkey finds reliance on the document as a beacon of equality somewhat absurd.
"If Alaska Native people had been fairly represented," he said, "there is no way that the Alaska Constitution would not have had protection for their hunting and fishing rights."
Philosophical adversaries and allies
A large and vocal group of hunters and fisherman outside the Native subsistence community are sympathetic to some aspects of the subsistence movement, while resistant to others.
The Alaska Outdoor Council claims to have about 3,500 members, along with the combined membership of 51 clubs statewide. Most members are outdoors folks who live in non-subsistence areas, said Rod Arno, AOC's executive director. Part of AOC's mission is to ensure all people in the state, as guaranteed by the Alaska Constitution, have access to fish and game resources.
Because of this, the group does not support a constitutional amendment that would give Alaska Natives preferential or protected hunting and fishing rights.
"Any priority in a republic or a democracy is a bad thing because it pits one group against another," Arno said.
Yet, Arno believes with the salmon crisis affecting much of Alaska -- on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and now also in Cook Inlet -- Alaska Natives are right to raise their voices.
With bycatch -- the incidental scooping up of non-targeted species during commercial fishing -- a suspected culprit for missing fish in the river systems, Arno is among those Alaskans who believe the state is inappropriately allowing commercial interests to thrive to the detriment of other users.
But when it comes to carving out special protections in the constitution for aboriginal hunting and fishing rights, AOC has fought such efforts in the past and is likely to continue to resist future proposals.
"It's like passing a federal law that says you're going to stop cultural evolution … you just can't do that," Arno said. "To start dividing out Alaskans by whether you are of Native descent or not, that's what AOC is against."
Under Alaska law, while all state residents are qualified for subsistence harvests, priority to resources is determined by how significantly hunting or fishing relates to one's "mainstay of livelihood." Arno believes this is a good standard, one that can remain relevant over time in the hands of interpreters of the day -- fish and game boards made up of contemporaries striving to balance the interests of everyone fairly.
In the event a fishery or hunt needs to be limited, that could conceivably pit an Alaska Native family from Anchorage seeking a permit for cultural and spiritual reasons against a non-Native family in rural Alaska who has traditionally relied on hunts for the bulk of their annual food supply. Arno believes Alaskans are capable of balancing these competing interests.
But AFN and its delegates, which represent thousands of Native Alaskans across the state, disagree.
A subtle but significant aspect of the subsistence fight is that Alaska Natives aren't asking for permission. They are doing what they can to control their destinies, working within the law when they can, and seeking to reshape it where it's not working. They believe it's their human right to hunt and fish, something intact and unalterable. It is their hope the governments under which they live will rethink Alaska Native sovereignty, particularly in regards to subsistence and lands, and take the steps necessary to fully recognize these rights under the law.
It is not likely to be a quick fix.
While measures have been taken to include Native voices in management discussions about fish and game, they are not necessarily influential voices. Intentions may be good among the managers, but the result is a kind of token consultation, which, Starkey says, is "insulting" and "disempowering."
Real influence -- giving Alaska Natives controlling seats at the table -- is a better way forward, many believe. Rep. Young said as much, as did the AFN membership this past week.
With the movement for subsistence rights intensifying, and young Alaska Natives ready to spearhead the fight, Starkey believes federal and state governments are wise to join the effort.
"The paradigm is shifting right out from under their feet. There is an unbending and growing determination of Native people to reclaim their aboriginal hunting and fishing rights, and their rights to manage their self-determination," he said.
"Government can either embrace it or get swept away by it."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com