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General News    H3'ed 9/15/08

Sarah Palin and Alaska Natives Part 1

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A recent web article is worthy of some review and discussion in regards to Governor Palin’s “Record on Alaska Native and Tribal Issues”. It is good when substantive policy issues are referenced in the discussion of Palin. A lot of people are unaware of the importance of indigenous issues in Alaska. In the 2000 Census, 15.6% of the Alaska population listed themselves as Alaskan native or American Indian. “While over 40% of the residents live in the largest city of Anchorage, most of the rest of the state is sparsely populated or uninhabited with communities separated by vast distances. 52.3% of the state population lives in frontier areas.” This makes for a significant percentage of the population in rural regions. There are also well-established tribal governments in Alaska. “There are 562 tribal governments in the United States with 225 of them located in Alaska,” explains Paul G. Moorhead, a Federal Indian law and policy attorney with the Indian Tribal Governments Practice Group at Gardner, Carton & Douglas in Washington, D.C.” 

The most significant act in recent history that impacted indigenous and Native Alaskan peoples was “in 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was signed into law by the U.S. President, under which the Natives relinquished aboriginal claims to their lands.[2] In return, they received access to 44 million acres (180,000 km²) of land and were paid $963 million. The land and money were divided among regional, urban, and village corporations.”  

Criticism from a former Chief  of the Neetsaii Gwich’in tribe from Arctic Village, Alaska and the current Executive Director of Native Movement points out: “The same piece of unilateral federal legislation, known as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, that extinguished our hunting and fishing rights, also extinguished all federal Alaska Native land claims and my Tribe’s reservation status. In the continental United States, this sort of legislation is referred to as ‘termination legislation’ because it takes the rights of self-government away from Tribes.”

In the article the former Chief  stated: “Governor Palin maintains that tribes were federally recognized but that they do not have the same rights as the tribes in the continental United States to sovereignty and self-governance, even to the extent of legally challenging our Tribes rights pursuant to the Indian Child Welfare Act.”

Given the Federal interface required for indigenous claims it should be said that the state’s role in determining policies is strictly defined by litigation and federal statute. Much of the jurisdiction over subsistence hunting and fishing rights within Alaska has been federalized. “The secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior are legally bound to manage fish and wildlife for the rural subsistence priority on federal land and water because the State of Alaska is not able to do so under the provisions of the [Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act] ANILCA.”  This is the substance of the court decision of May 2007 referred to in the article SARAH PALIN’S RECORD ON ALASKA NATIVE AND TRIBAL ISSUES .  A more comprehensive examination of the subsistence policy is available.

This history indicates that the ongoing dispute is one in which a resolution has not yet been found in the courts or in the state legislature. As a result of the Katie John case a declaration was issued that ". . . subsistence is integral to the lives and essential to the survival of Alaska Native peoples and communities. The subsistence way of life for Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans is a unique and important Alaska value that must be protected by our state government. The Legislature shall adopt a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a rural subsistence priority for use of Alaska's fish and game resources." There has been no such adoption of a state Constitutional amendment to date.  This keeps the issue alive in state and Federal courts.

Gov. Palin has NOT sought to pass a state Constitutional amendment that would address the matter of rural subsistence rights and is working in opposition to the efforts of most Alaskans to resolve it in this way. She stands isolated in this regard. “Prior to 2002, three governors, the Alaska congressional delegation, and a majority of State legislators supported a state constitutional amendment to resolve the conflict. “Although a majority of Alaskan citizens also appeared to support amending the constitution to allow for a rural priority for subsistence, this amendment was not able to achieve the required two-thirds majority in both houses of the state legislature and was not passed. No legislative or judicial solution is expected in the foreseeable future that would allow the State of Alaska to comply with ANILCA provisions and to manage subsistence hunting and fishing on federal public lands and waters.”

Even the majority of the court in the Katie John case declared: “If we were to adopt Katie John's position, that public lands include all navigable waters, we would give federal agencies control over all such waters in Alaska. ANILCA does not support such a complete assertion of federal control and the federal agencies do not ask to have that control. The issue raised by the parties cries out for a legislative, not a judicial, solution. If the Alaska Legislature were to amend the state constitution or otherwise comply with ANILCA's rural subsistence priority, the state could resume management of subsistence uses on public lands including navigable waters. Neither the heavy administrative burden nor the complicated regulatory scheme that may result from our decision would be necessary. If Congress were to amend ANILCA, it could clarify both the definition of public lands and its intent. Only legislative action by Alaska or Congress will truly resolve the problem.”

In fact, a website, addressing candidate policy positions, quotes specifically indicates Governor Palin’s opposition to just such a Constitutional amendment. This makes her MORE than just an observer on this matter. “Palin opposes a constitutional amendment, saying equality provisions should not be tampered with. She says the state should work toward another resolution that protects subsistence for those who need it most.”  Alaskan Republicans have consistently opposed an amendment.Opposition to a state Constitutional amendment is also the position taken by the Alaskan Independence Party .

Graphic depiction of AIP’s view of the U.S. from their website.

In 2008, Governor Palin sent an official video welcome to the state convention of the Alaskan Independence Party.

The article SARAH PALIN’S RECORD ON ALASKA NATIVE AND TRIBAL ISSUES presents the case that only Governor Palin stands between subsistence rights and indigenous peoples.  “Palin continues to argue in the litigation that the federal subsistence protections are too broad, and should be narrowed to exclude vast areas from subsistence fishing”.

The fact is that there is a general recognition that the Federal jurisdiction in Alaska is a matter that needs clarification.  In addition to the view of the Court of Appeals expressed above in the majority opinion, the dissenting opinion of the Court of Appeals in the Katie John case indicated a concern regarding the Federal authority in Alaska: “I do not think it is for us to decide, on the basis of these two factors, that Congress intended "interest" to be defined so broadly so as to bring all of Alaska's navigable waters under ANILCA. Such a drastic change in the amount of control exercised by the federal government over all navigable waters in Alaska can only come from Congress.” Judge Hall dissenting.

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Martin Zehr is an American political writer in the San Francisco area. He spent 8 years working as a volunteer water planner for the Middle Rio Grande region. His article on the Kirkuk Referendum has been printed by the Kurdish Regional Government, Another article was reprinted in its entirety by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) He is a Contributing Writer to Kurdish Aspect more...)

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