Katie John appeal turns Natives against Knowles

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state's largest Native organization on Tuesday condemned Gov. Tony Knowles for his plans to appeal a landmark subsistence lawsuit, and vowed to do whatever is necessary to keep their rights from being eroded by a hostile state government.

Leaders of the Alaska Federation of Natives said the governor's decision last month to challenge the so-called ''Katie John'' ruling threatens their way of life, and must be fought vigorously at the federal level.

''We'll do what we have to do to protect our rights in this state,'' said Julie Kitka, AFN president.

Kitka said if Knowles doesn't back away from an appeal, the options include legal, political and economic actions. Among the possible economic responses is a spending boycott by Natives.

But she said ''we're not going to make any hollow threats. When we go forward, it will be real and will have the backing of the entire Native community.''

The resolve arises from resolutions passed at an emergency AFN meeting held in Anchorage to start plotting a strategy to oppose the governor.

The Katie John appeal is ''the pot boiling over'' for Natives long unhappy with state government for failing to solve the divisive subsistence issue that has gone on for three decades, said AFN co-chair Roy Huhndorf.

Knowles is appealing a 1995 ruling of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case, which is named for an Athabascan elder denied a subsistence fish camp on the Copper River. The ruling established that the federal government had subsistence authority over most state waters in Alaska.

The federal government took over subsistence fishing management on those waters in October when the state Legislature failed to approve a constitutional amendment granting a subsistence priority to rural residents, as required under federal law.

Robert Loescher, president of Juneau-based Sealaska Corp., exhorted the AFN delegates to man the barricades.

''We should stand with Katie John, defend her rights and continue her fight in the direction it takes us in the days to come,'' Loescher said.

John, 84, who lives in Mentasta, received several standing ovations as she walked to the podium and told of her early years hunting and fishing in the southeastern Interior. She also lamented that many young people are not learning the traditional skills that define their Native culture.

''I think I was more happy than they are today,'' John said.

AFN delegates also voted to oppose returning subsistence jurisdiction to the state until state leaders, including the governor, agree to joint management by tribal entities.

Knowles spokesman Bob King said late Tuesday that the governor's appeal is rooted in state sovereignty over its resources, rather than opposition to Native subsistence rights.

''Neither this governor nor any other governor would surrender management of subsistence,'' King said from Juneau. ''It's a fundamental reason Alaskans sought statehood originally.

''(Knowles) supports the rights of Katie John the person to harvest the fish she needs,'' he said. ''But it would be best done under a state management regime.''

Kitka said AFN would approach Congress to strengthen the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and other federal laws to explicitly state the subsistence rights of Alaska Natives.

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