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Perhaps no issue is of greater importance to Alaska Native peoples as the right to hunt and fish according to ancient customary and traditional practices, and to carry on the subsistence way of life for future generations.
These rights are not just a matter of custom; they are a matter of necessity in a state where Native villages are spread across a largely roadless area covering 375 million acres, and where subsistence foods are still fully 60 percent of the local diet.
But Gov. Sarah Palin has consistently opposed those essential and fundamental rights.
As soon as Palin was sworn in as governor, she set a firm course against Native subsistence rights. One of her very first decisions was to continue litigation that seeks to overturn every subsistence fishing determination the federal government has ever made in Alaska. The goal of Palin’s lawsuit (now known as Alaska v. Kempthorne) is to invalidate all the subsistence fishing regulations the federal government has ever issued to protect Alaska Native fishing in navigable waters. If successful, Palin’s attack would move every subsistence issue into the courts and thus tie up Alaska Native subsistence for generations. The reason is no secret: to diminish subsistence fishing rights in order to expand sport and commercial fishing.
As it turns out, last year the federal court in Alaska rejected Palin’s main challenge. The court held that in 1980 Congress had unequivocally granted the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture joint authority to regulate and protect Alaska Native (and even non-Native) subsistence fishing activities in most navigable waters. But that defeat has not deterred Palin.
Today, Palin continues to argue in court that federal subsistence protections are too broad and should be narrowed to exclude vast areas from subsistence fishing in favor of sport and commercial fishing. Palin opposes subsistence protections in marine waters, she opposes subsistence protections on many of the lands that Alaska Natives selected under their 1971 land claims settlement, and she opposes subsistence protections in many of the rivers where Alaska Natives customarily fish.
She even opposes subsistence fishing protections on Alaska Native federal allotments, even though those riverside allotments were deeded to Native people purposely to foster Native subsistence activities. In less than two years, Palin has proven herself no friend of Alaska Native subsistence.
In her short tenure, Palin has also tried to overturn critical federal protections for Alaska Native customary and traditional uses of game, again simply to enhance sport hunting. Palin’s attack here has targeted (among others) the Ahtna Indian people in Chistochina; and although the federal court last year rejected this challenge, too, Palin has refused to lay down her arms. The battle has thus moved on to the appellate courts.
In both hunting and fishing matters, Palin has challenged critical protections that Native people depend upon for their subsistence way of life, merely to enhance sport fishing and hunting opportunities. She has tolerated leadership on her state regulatory boards that is openly hostile to Native people, including people who have gone so far as to suggest, when chairing public hearings, that all Native people are drunks. Palin’s lawsuits are more than insensitive; they are a direct attack on Alaska Native people.
Sadly, her campaign has not stopped with her attacks on subsistence. At the very same time that she has challenged federal subsistence rights, she has waged a second battle against tribal sovereignty.
While Palin pays lip service to the fact that Alaska tribes are federally recognized, it is an empty statement because she insists they have no authority whatsoever to act as sovereigns despite that recognition unless, she argues, the state first permits a tribe to take some particular action.
Palin has sought to block Alaska tribes from even exercising authority over the welfare of Native children again, unless the state through its courts first authorizes a tribe to act. It is a position that is so extreme that not only have the federal courts rejected it, but even her own state courts have rejected it.
Nonetheless, Palin stubbornly refuses to relent, regardless of the consequence for village children caught in the middle of the resulting jurisdictional nightmare.
A third prong in her assault on Native peoples has been Palin’s refusal to accord proper respect to Alaska Native languages and Alaska Native voters, by denying language assistance to Yup’ik-speaking voters.
As a result, this July Palin was ordered by a special three-judge panel of federal judges to provide various forms of voter assistance to Yup’ik voters residing in southwest Alaska. Citing years of state neglect, Palin was ordered to provide trained poll workers who are bilingual in English and Yup’ik; sample ballots in written Yup’ik; a written Yup’ik glossary of election terms; consultation with local tribes to ensure the accuracy of Yup’ik translations; a Yup’ik language coordinator; and pre- and post-election reports to the court to track the state’s efforts.
Palin’s record is clear, and measured against some of the rights that are most fundamental to Alaska Native tribes – the subsistence way of life, tribal sovereignty and voting rights – that record is a failure.
Lloyd Miller and Heather Kendall-Miller each practice law in Anchorage, Alaska, representing Native interests. The views expressed here are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective employers or their clients.