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State's appeal in Katie John case called an 'assault' on Alaskans

November 15th, 2013 | Jillian Rogers Print this article   Email this article  

Kathryn Martin made a plea in Fairbanks a couple of weeks ago at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference.

"Let my grandmother rest in peace," Martin said before a packed house and a live audience around the state.

Martin was speaking of her grandmother, Katie John, a highly revered Ahtna elder who championed for subsistence rights until the day she died in May of this year.

Last week the State of Alaska filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, making clear its intention to appeal a case that spans decades and disputes over who has the right to manage many of Alaska's waterways — the state, or the federal government.

The State of Alaska's petition to the U.S. Supreme Court in the legal case State of Alaska v Sally Jewell, Secretary of the United States Department of Interior et al, is widely known as the Katie John Case.

"This case has been going on for how many years and my grandmother prevailed every time in court," said Martin by phone last week. "The state needs to look at making a constitutional amendment. A lot of people, Native and non-Native, would support it."

Martin said the amount of money alone that the State is willing to put up to appeal this case would be so much better served helping those who need it in rural Alaska.

"I'm making it sound simple, but to me it is," she said.

"They (the State) want to keep it complicated and to keep it in the court system. Is this where we want our state dollars to go when we have people not even able to get fish up north?"

Martin, who is the vice president of land and resources for Ahtna, Inc., also referenced high energy costs in the villages and resulting population growth in urban areas because villagers simply can't afford to live in remote areas anymore.

"They should be saving communities in rural Alaska."

The Alaska Federation of Natives is an intervening party in this case in defense of subsistence rights, and has been for over 18 years.

The federation promised to defend subsistence rights from the State's "reckless attempt to unravel the precedent set by the lower courts," read a release from AFN.

The State of Alaska's petition asks that the Court overturn the federal rules declared in 1999 that define Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act's public lands definition to include waters subject to the federal reserved water rights doctrine.

"Subsistence is not only a way of life ... It is essential to our survival as a people, and no one has the right to ever take it away from us," said AFN co-chair Tara Sweeney at a press briefing last week. "This latest action by the State of Alaska is an assault upon the people of Alaska who depend upon hunting, fishing and gathering to feed their families."

Dr. Rosita Worl, chair of AFN's subsistence committee, echoed Sweeney's statement. "We will vigorously defend the subsistence rights of our people by intervening in this case and any others that compromise our basic rights," she said. "For nearly two decades we have made attempts to resolve this issue at the State, Congressional and Administrative levels; and, the State has refused to participate in a responsible solution for Alaskans.

"This is not acceptable and must be stopped."

In a statement released late last week, Ahtna, Inc., expressed its disappointment in the new development.?"The Katie John decision stands as one of the few protections of Alaska Native subsistence fishing rights, in spite of a long history of state-federal conflict. If the state succeeds in its appeal, for all practical purposes, there will be no place for Alaska Native people to subsistence fish under the provisions of ANILCA."

John sued the state in 1984 after being denied access to a fish camp in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park that had been used by her people for subsistence fishin?prior to the land being shut down. In 1994, John and the other plaintiffs prevailed, and the rulin?opened all federal waters in Alaska to management priority for rural Alaska residents for subsistence use.

"We believe strongly in the principle of self-determination," Ahtna's release stated. "Any effort to extend state jurisdiction over fish and wildlife management must also seek to protect the traditional and customary rights of Alaska first people and to ensure the tribes a meaningful role in management of hunting and fishing throughout their traditional territory."

Alaska Dispatch contributed to this story.


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