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Yupiit Fight for Restoration of Indigenous Fishing Rights in Alaska

Attendees at the National Congress of American Indians raised more than $8,000 in a little over an hour to help defray the cost of attorneys defending the subsistence fishing rights of Yupiit Nation fishermen in court.

The case involves 14 Yupiit fishermen who were arrested last June 21 for violating a state- and federal government-imposed fishing ban on the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska near Bethel. But it represents a much larger issue—a statewide movement among Alaska Natives to restore their traditional hunting, fishing and cultural rights—rights that are supposed to be inalienable from indigenous peoples, but which nonetheless were “extinguished” in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

The 14 fishermen were scheduled to appear in court on Monday October 29 for the beginning of a trial on their pleadings of not guilty for violating the fishing ban. Last spring, elders and families of the Akiak Native Community reluctantly agreed with a proposal by the Alaska State Department on Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to close the river to fishing for seven days due to a shortage of King salmon, said Mike Williams, chief of the Yupiit Nation at the community, to ICTMN at the National Congress of American Indians’ (NCAI) 69th Annual Convention in Sarasota the week of October 20.

“We agreed to cooperate with the closure for seven days after a long winter, and it was very hard because people did not get their salmon, but before the seven days were over they extended the closure for another five days with the objection of the Kuskokwim Management Working Group, which I’m on,” Williams said. “The group recommended giving an opportunity to our fishermen for 72 hours to get the King salmon they needed and our elders said it wouldn’t impact the catch for the salmon.”

The state’s area biologist who had recommended the additional five days of closure vetoed the Alaska Natives’ suggestion for a 72-hour window to allow the fishermen to catch their traditional King salmon. Committee members decided to ignore his veto and exercise their inherent fishing rights. “The committee said, ‘We’re going fishing, the elders directed us to go fishing, and we’re hungry, and we need to fish,’ ” Williams said. The committee notified the State Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as to what time they would be fishing and issued a press release about their decision.

So on the eighth day—one day after the agreed-upon seven-day closure—the men went fishing. The feds were prepared: Thirty-one Yupiit men were arrested; 14 pled not guilty, and 17 pled guilty.

“They were guilty of fishing!” Williams said. “Guilty of trying to feed our families and they became criminals. The judge said, ‘Oh, they’re not criminals, it’s not a crime, it’s only an infraction,’ but they were fined $500 each with $200 suspended, and the ones who pleaded guilty got their fish nets back.”

The enforcement officers cut some of the fishermen’s nets, Williams said.

“Right now we just raised some funds for the attorneys to travel to defend the men because we don’t have any attorneys,” Williams said. “We have public defenders, but they need help because they don’t know about indigenous and tribal rights. We’re planning to get some of our elders and families and women that protect our fishermen to go and fill the courthouse.”

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There is overwhelming support from all of Alaska's communities and from tribes in the lower 48 states for the Yupiit fishermen and for all Alaska Natives to exercise their inherent hunting and fishing rights, Williams said. On October 17 about 200 people gathered in Anchorage to demand the restoration of the inherent indigenous right to hunt and fish and live off the land as they had before the settler colonization of their land, according to the Alaska Dispatch. The rally—called the “I am Alaska Native: Hunt, Fish and Share Rally” was organized by a statewide coalition of Alaska Native groups.

"I'm here to fire you up," said Lee Stephan, tribal council president of the Native Village of Eklutna, who was the first speaker at the rally, according to the report. "We as Native people, we got to do something."

He said that back when Natives were in charge of their own resources, there were never food shortages, and salmon were everywhere. Under "white man's" so-called management, though, the numbers have dwindled, and Natives have lost the ability to fish, he said.

The demonstrators demanded an end to the criminalization of indigenous hunting and fishing rights and traditional practices. Community leaders insisted that federal and state leaders uphold subsistence rights as a priority on all Alaskan lands and waters and adopt policies that provide a greater voice and increased Alaska Native participation in hunting and fishing management. The rally sent a clear message to legislators and politicians that ending failed subsistence policies is a priority for Alaska Natives come Election Day, Williams said.

“The Akiak Native Community has proposed a resolution to support the Yupiit 14 fishermen that asserts Alaska Native Peoples’ right to their unique heritage, languages, and cultures—a right that has been reaffirmed by their federal recognition as tribes, and by the United States endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Williams said. “These sovereign nations express that they retain all their rights, status and territory. Our member tribes’ traditional territory and status was stripped with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and our member tribes want Indian country in Alaska to be recognized, to protect both our lands and our tribal citizens’ indigenous hunting and fishing rights.”

In a press release from the Akiak Native Community, Williams notes that First Peoples have “innate knowledge of living upon the land being sustained by its resources.” He cites the “cultural strife and legal entanglements experienced by the Natives in their effort to gather food, express their culture and pursue their way of life in the State of Alaska”—strife that has led some of the state's highest elected officials to protest to state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for causing salmon fishermen to forfeit their nets and face fines. Senator Lisa Murkowski, addressing the recent Alaska Federation of Natives convention, said the government understood subsistence fishing needs and was trying to balance that against the necessary shutdown in the face of the weak King salmon return.

"We know the devastating impact on our fisheries and our communities," said Murkowski in her convention address. "We are all working together in this delegation to make sure people knew what was coming their way."

In 2010 the department’s statistics showed that 98.3 percent of all harvested resources were by commercial interests, subsistence and personal use accounted for 1.1 percent, and sports use accounted for 0.6 percent, according to the release. In 2010 pollock boats and other fishermen in the Gulf of Alaska caught an estimated 58,336 King salmon.

“These ‘incidental’ salmon are the mainstay food source for all Alaska Natives, and their recent disappearance from the Alaska river systems is seen by many First People as a major threat to their human rights,” Murkowski said. “Fourteen fishermen have refused to accept fines, confiscation of their nets and one year probation, and instead have chosen to seek public trials.”

During the NCAI convention, members voiced their support for the Yupiit Fourteen and their families for their resolve to contest the charges now pending against them in state court in Bethel, Williams said. NCAI urged the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to hold immediate field hearings in Juneau, Bethel, Anchorage and Fairbanks to hear from Alaska's tribes about the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and about possible legislative solutions. The organization requested that the court exercise its inherent equitable jurisdiction by dismissing and/or reversing the convictions of all fishermen cited on June 21, 2012, Williams said.