Testimony of Larry Merculieff for the Alaska Legislature, House Resources Committee Subsistence Hearing. March 27.
Summary: Merculieff takes a stand for Alaska Natives subsistence rights which are in jeopardy due to changes in state laws. In Merculieff’s words, “the controversy over subsistence in Alaska is not about an ‘urban-rural divide’; it is not about zip codes, and it is not about where Alaskans hunt, fish or gather food. This issue is about the rights of Alaska’s indigenous peoples, whether they be Aleut, Yupik, Tlingit, Inupiaq, Haida, Tsimpsian, Aluttiq, or Athabaskan, to support themselves, their families and their communities as they have for thousands of years.”
Mister Chairman, members of the Committee, thank you for this opportunity to testify on behalf of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program. My name is Larry Merculieff and I am the director of Public Policy & Advocacy for RurAL CAP.
With the permission of the Chair, I do not wish to be specific as to the various pieces of legislation before the Committee today. Rather, I would like to speak in a general sense about the subsistence issue, and where we believe the Alaska Native and tribal community stands today.
The best thing that could happen with regard to subsistence would be for Congress to repeal the section of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act [ANCSA] that extinguished Alaska Natives’ aboriginal hunting and fishing rights.
Everything in federal and state law today is based on the false premise that subsistence hunting and fishing activities by rural Alaskan residents were the focus of Congress’ concern in enacting Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act [ANILCA]. In fact, the true focus of congressional concern was to protect the cultural integrity of Alaska Natives.
QUOTE: ANILCA’s House Manager, the late Congressman Morris Udall’s legislative history, provided in the Congressional Record of November 11, 1980:
“I am particularly proud of the subsistence language in [ANILCA] because it fully reflects the commitment that…[was] made to the Alaska Native people [when ANCSA was passed]… Although there are many non-Natives living a subsistence way of life in rural Alaska, which may be an important national value, the subsistence title would not be included in the bill if non-Native subsistence activities were the primary focus of concern. Rather, the subsistence title and the other subsistence provisions are included in recognition of the ongoing responsibility of the Congress to protect the opportunity for continued subsistence uses in Alaska by the Alaska Native people, a responsibility consistent with our well recognized constitutional authority to manage Indian affairs.”]
Mr. Chairman, the controversy over subsistence in Alaska is not about an ‘urban-rural divide’; it is not about zip codes, and it is not about where Alaskans hunt, fish or gather food. This issue is about the rights of Alaska’s indigenous peoples, whether they be Aleut, Yupik, Tlingit, Inupiaq, Haida, Tsimpsian, Aluttiq, or Athabaskan, to support themselves, their families and their communities as they have for thousands of years.
Management of subsistence hunting and fishing on the sixty percent of Alaska that is in federal ownership has now been in federal hands for thirty months. Every subsistence bill that has made it out of the House to date has represented that its purpose is to return subsistence management to the State of Alaska. Increasingly, however, Alaska Natives are asking this question: What is so bad about federal subsistence management?
The opponents of a State subsistence protection law have sharply criticized the federal bureaus which are responsible for implementing the federal subsistence protections. Their rallying cry is that Alaska’s fish and game should not be managed by ‘outsiders’, or from far away in Washington, D.C. I would like to remind everyone that the great majority of people who do the day-to-day, hands-on work of federal subsistence management are Alaskan people. They include:
- The 200+ members of the regional advisory councils, who by law are knowledgeable residents of the various subsistence areas;
- Employees of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Minerals Management Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Fish & Wildlife Service, many of whom were either born in Alaska, or who have lived in this state for decades and consider themselves Alaskans;
- Alaskan based administrators and policy-makers whose opinions have the greatest weight when decisions are made in Washington, D.C.
The longer that federal management has continued, the more you hear Alaska Native people asking another question: What is so great about State subsistence management? Some of the reasons that I can think that Native peoples are asking this question are:
- The political nature of the Fish and Game Boards’ appointment process – where the perception is, real or not, that subsistence users’ concerns are devalued or neglected in order to protect the interests of sport and commercial fish and game users;
- Actions of the legislative majority to initially eliminate the funding for the Subsistence Division of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game;
- And the perception that some of our policymakers in Juneau can seem to be just as far away (in terms of understanding the vital importance of subsistence to our people), as their much-criticized counterparts in Washington, D.C.
Finally, Mr. Chairman, I want to address the subsistence issue in the same terms as long-time opponents of a State law granting a priority for subsistence uses over all others. Alaska Natives have often been accused of seeking “special rights” to hunt, fish and gather food in our customary and traditional ways. Why is it that these “special rights” are proper for others to possess, but not Alaska Natives? I speak here of, for example:
- The right of oil companies (and only oil companies) to bid on mineral leasing tracts in certain areas of Alaska;
- The right of Limited Entry permit-holders (and only such permit-holders) to fish in certain waters of Alaska;
- The right of financial institutions (and only financial institutions) to engage in certain business transactions throughout the United States;
- The right of members of Congress (and only such members) to be exempt from postage costs through the practice of ‘franking’ their mail.
- The right of certain factory processors (and only these processors) to take bottomfish off of Alaskan waters, and the right to throw hundreds of tons of non-targeted species overboard in wanton waste.
These examples beg the question, What is wrong with special rights? There are practical and political reasons for all of the so-called ‘special rights’ I have mentioned. As a matter of fact, as a matter of history, and even as a matter of laws, we Alaska Natives have earned a special right to our aboriginal hunting, fishing, and gathering ways of living because we have depended on this way of life for at least ten thousand years.
All such things aside, it is a human right for all peoples to partake in what has always sustained them socially, economically, spiritually, culturally, and nutritionally. It is a human right not to destroy the dignity and cultural foundations of any peoples. Failure to protect the subsistence right of Alaska Natives will destroy the basis for the diversity and vitality of our cultures and our communities. It is time for the Alaska Legislature to recognize and protect that right in State law. It is the right thing to do. It is the just thing to do. It is the moral thing to do. To do less will disenfranchise the first peoples of this state from everything that sustains them and destroy an irreplaceable and rich way of life. I, for one, believe that the good people of this state understand this and support protection of our ways of living. I would like to believe that the leaders of this great state are big enough to accommodate those at the margins of political power.
Thank you for this opportunity to testify.