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Will Alaska Native fishermen prevail in religious freedom defense?

  • Author: Carey Restino
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published November 19, 2012

When I saw that headline -- Yup'ik Alaskans on trial for violating salmon fishing restrictions claim religious rite -- I had to pause. Ever since taking this position, people have been trying to explain the connection between Alaska Native culture and harvesting food. There is no connection, they say -- they are one. In a way, Natives are what they eat -- their traditional diet is the true soul food.

So is it that far-fetched to claim religious freedom as a defense for harvesting fish when fishing is restricted? Maybe not. But it sure is a game-changer.

By now, most people in Native communities have heard the story, but just in case, let's back up a bit. Last summer, the kings didn't show in western Alaska. Not in the numbers the state fishery managers wanted, anyway. So they shut down rivers like the Kuskokwim, causing quite a bit of frustration from those who harvest their winter's food there. Adding insult to injury, when a group of fishermen disobeyed the order and set to the river with nets, they were arrested. In a couple cases, their nets were even slashed. Tough to see how that was justified, most say, but there you have it.

Now those same fishermen are facing their day in court.

The first group argued they weren't aware of the fishing ban. That defense didn't fly -- guilty, the judge said. So, the next group intends to use a different strategy. Under the guidance of attorney James Davis, they are calling in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This defense essentially states that the state fishing bans shouldn't apply to them, because their actions were protected as religious freedom and expression of cultural identity.

Telling a Yup'ik person he or she can't go out and fish is "like telling a Catholic they can have mass, but only with the Eucharist or the wine, not both," Davis said in an interview after filing his motion, the Alaska Dispatch reported.

If this argument holds water, it's going to present one heck of a challenge for the state of Alaska.

There are other forces at work as this issue comes to the forefront once again. At the Alaska Federation of Natives conference, the frustration was palpable, and not just from those impacted by the dismal run. The entire gathering seemed to be energized by the plight of this one area, and even the visiting politicians caught the fever.

Both Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young expressed their displeasure at the way the state and the fishermen interacted. Young even went as far as to say the time may be near for the state to relinquish some control of the management of subsistence fish and game. That might have been a politically savvy thing to say to thousands of voters just before an election, but when you say something like that, it has a way of taking on its own life.

Like so many ideas, though, the real challenge comes in defining how one would design and accomplish a goal like that. Surely, there is value in what the management of a species with the intent of protecting it. Perhaps the reactions are too extreme; so many factors are at work on a salmon population that it's hard to say whether letting a few more hundred fish up a river will make or break its population forever. Surely there are lots of questions to be answered and explored by this situation.

But perhaps the argument that fishing is so much more than just a way to fill their freezers, like it is for the thousands of non-Native fishermen who swarm the Kenai and Kasilof rivers each year, will stand.

Maybe, at the very least, it will finally put the relationship between Native cultures and their food sources in a perspective that non-Natives can understand. Perhaps even linking hunting and gathering to religion is too simple. Perhaps it even goes deeper than that. I've heard it said that eating Native foods is as necessary to the culture as breathing and eating.

One thing is for certain, more dialogue and understanding between Native cultures and the bureaucracy that governs them is needed to avoid messes like the one currently playing out in Bethel's courtroom. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, having to fight their case will be productive on some level.

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder and The Bristol Bay Times/The Dutch Harbor Fisherman. Her opinions are her own.

This commentary was first published by The Bristol Bay Times and is republished here with permission. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)

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