Nighthorse Campbell: Governor Palin supports Native communities

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 Recently, two attorneys from Alaska, who coincidentally help lead the Alaskans for Obama ’08 campaign organization, issued a statement charging that Gov. Sarah Palin has “attacked” Native subsistence rights. As the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, where I gained some familiarity with these issues, and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana, I offer these thoughts.

I promise I will not use case citations or even catchy phrases in Latin, but be assured the subsistence issue in the state of Alaska is not as one-dimensional as these lawyers would have us believe.

“Subsistence” is a word that describes a traditional way of life among many Native peoples. In a practical sense, it involves hunting, fishing and gathering of traditional Native foods. Subsistence is also one of the many ways that Native people further their cultures.

In Alaska, subsistence practices have a significant role in Native and non-Native communities. In 1980, Congress enacted the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act to provide subsistence preferences to all “rural residents” of Alaska, Native and non-Native. Since enactment of ANILCA, as some resources have become scarcer, preference for subsistence practices has become a political issue in Alaska, dividing urban and rural residents, regardless of whether they are Republicans or Democrats. It has also divided Alaska Natives, who disagree over how best to balance the protection of their subsistence and commercial interests. Since that time, Democratic and Republican governors have tried to resolve the conflicts, without success. Likewise, a succession of federal secretaries of the Interior, in Democratic and Republican administrations, has also tried to balance the competing interests without success.

Let’s be frank: Much like the issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, many lawyers have built their entire careers on this issue. Additionally, advocacy organizations have raised millions of dollars on both sides of this issue.

The state of Alaska has always disagreed with how the United States proposes to regulate hunting and fishing in Alaska, and has filed several lawsuits over the years, including those cited by the attorneys mentioned above. When she became governor in 2006 after defeating the incumbent Republican governor, Palin inherited responsibility for those lawsuits.

To be fair, I am sure that most Alaska Native communities would have preferred that the state had taken a position that made Native subsistence practices a priority over all others. With many Alaska Natives being “rural residents,” they benefit significantly from the subsistence preference in ANILCA.

However, that federal law provides rights for all rural residents; and as governor, Palin is responsible to advocate for the interests of all Alaskans, Native and non-Native. She has done so in much the same manner as did former Gov. Tony Knowles, the Democrat she defeated in 2006. Palin, like other governors before her, has pursued a balance between competing Native and non-Native, urban and rural, as well as commercial and subsistence interests.

It is highly unfair and grossly inaccurate to accuse Palin of an “attack” on Native subsistence. The lawyers who wrote this allegation know better, as does the campaign they are leading.

Palin has been actively engaged with Alaska Native communities. In fact, she married into the Alaska Native community – her husband and children are Yup’ik. She understands their issues on a personal level and, contrary to what these lawyers would have you believe, would never endanger the welfare of the Alaska Native children or “attack” their voting rights.

Further, Palin has channeled significant efforts and resources into schools and housing programs for rural and Native communities, and worked to incorporate the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium into the state’s Alaska Health Care Strategies Planning Council.

I have said publicly and often that Indian country will be well positioned to achieve significant progress with a president, like John McCain, that understands and supports Indian country. The only thing better would be to have that president joined by a vice president who also has a personal and abiding interest in Native issues.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, is a retired U.S. senator (R-Colo.). He is an honorary co-chair of the American Indians for McCain Coalition.