"If we lose our culture... that is genocide"
Mary Ann Mills, Kenaitze IndianKenaitze elder Emil
A broad spectrum of thought and feelings were expressed at Wednesday night's subsistence meeting in Kenai. Several shades of gray were illuminated during testimony regarding an issue that often is seen as black and white.
The Federal Subsistence Board's public hearing on whether the entire Kenai Peninsula should be classified as "rural" for purposes of subsistence hunting and fishing drew about 100 people to the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association building. More than a third of those attending spoke, presenting arguments from many different angles of the issue.
Today's controversy began in 1990, when the Federal Subsistence Board declared the peninsula's population centers to be urban. In 1998, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe requested an early review of that determination (a review was scheduled for after the 2000 census).
Later in 1998, the Southcentral Regional Subsistence Advisory Council voted to support the tribe's request. In May 1999, the federal board agreed, and determined a re-evaluation should be made in May 2000. Wednesday night's meeting was for the purpose of gathering testimony, on which the May decision will be at least partially based.
Dolchok testifies in favor of a rural designation for the peninsula as others wait for their turn at the mike.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
In her testimony, Rosalie Tepp, tribal chair for the Kenaitzes, related a resolution listing reasons why the now-urban areas of the peninsula should be reclassified as rural, including a lack of jobs, distance from Anchorage and that other federal agencies recognize the entire peninsula as rural.
Then, she spoke for herself.
"I feel like a Jewish person being led into the death chambers in Auschwitz," Tepp said. "Am I to beg for a few fish? Is it so wrong to teach my own way of life? Why must we all act like Nazis? We can survive this, (but) we are losing. The people of Alaska are losing."
Several Native Alaskans compared losing subsistence rights to the extermination of their culture and lifestyle.
"Subsistence is a promise from the government to the Dena'ina, a symbol of our people and culture," said Mary Ann Mills. "If we lose our culture ... that is genocide."
One Native took the argument to the far end of the spectrum, questioning the legality of the sale of Alaska to the United States by the Russians.
"Does the U.S. own Alaska free and clear?" asked Sharon Smith. "I've done a lot of research and I haven't seen (an answer) yet."
She went on to say that subsistence and sovereignty go hand-in-hand.
"Some of us choose to retain our sovereignty through our subsistence ways," Smith said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Smith was Dale Bondurant, of the Alaska Constitutional Legal Defense Fund.
"This is a no-brainer," Bondurant said. "The dispute is if the federal government has jurisdiction. Title VIII violates the state constitution, and the state does not need to submit to any federal court except the U.S. Supreme Court."
Title VIII is the section of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that guarantees a subsistence priority on federal lands and waters to rural residents.
Non-Natives were universally opposed to a rural designation for the entire peninsula, even those who said they respected the Natives' beliefs and dilemma.
"I feel for the Kenaitze," said Karl Kircher, a commercial fisher. "Urbanization and tourism is winning. Sport fishermen are losing habitat, commercial fishing is losing. We will be urban eventually, even if we are not now."
Another commercial fisher, Brent Johnson, was one of the few speakers who addressed the main point of the hearing: whether the entire peninsula is rural or urban.
"It has to do with growth. Things change over time," Johnson said in arguing that the peninsula is indeed urban. "Just as people grow up, so does our area."
This issue has been one of the few that has brought both commercial fishing and professional sport guides together.
Joe Connors, of the professional guides association, said a huge industry has grown up around sport fishing, such as bed-and-breakfast operations, lodges, tackle shops, tourism, eateries and car rentals. A rural designation would destroy it all, he said.
"To put a new major player in the mix would be devastating," Connors said. "Many jobs will be lost and the tax base would shrink."
Brett Huber, with the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, agreed.
"Our fear is a rural determination would disrupt the balance," Huber said. "The detrimental impacts far outweigh the gains for the few who support such a sweeping change. Current users would lose the resource they depend on."
He went on to say that if the peninsula were opened up to all 50,000 residents for subsistence, the demand would threaten the resource.
However, Kenaitze elder Emil Dolchok disagreed.
"This rumor that there will be setnets all up and down the Kenai River is a bunch of hogwash," he said.
He went on to argue that only 13 percent of the visitors to the peninsula actually come here exclusively to sport fish.
"Is (losing) that 13 percent going to devastate our economy? I don't think so," he said. "We are being misled."
Rita Smagge, executive director of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, argued that the reason so many people have been, and are, moving to the Kenai Peninsula is because it is rural.
"Many people moved here because they didn't want to live in the big city," Smagge said. "Most live here to live the rural life, not the urban life."
While there were many other arguments on both sides of the issue, the last speaker of the night was critical of them all.
"What I've seen here tonight has sickened me. Everyone here tonight just wants to protect their own little piece of the pie. It scares the living tar out of me," said Tom Bowman. "A lot of people here are misguided, and, I believe, acting out of other motives. Tribes should have subsistence rights, but they should come from the state, not the federal government."
Wednesday night was the last opportunity for oral testimony before the Federal Subsistence Board meets in early May to make a decision; however, written testimony will be accepted until the end of March.
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