“Subsistence &Federal Recognition of Tribes”

Guest column by Evon Peter, Gwich’in

As Alaska Native peoples we are again at a critical point in time. The decisions we make and the actions we take will forever impact the spirit of our people and the ways of life we cherish. The pressures that are pushing us to take action are coming from within our people and from external forces. If we fail to make the right choices and act upon them, we threaten the future of our people. This is my call to our people, leaders, and supporters for unity, openness, and solidarity as we stand firm to confront the challenges that lie before us.

On a spiritual and social level our people are experiencing a depression that has brought us to the brink of collapse in our communities. The suicides, alcohol, drug, and physical abuses are signs of the dysfunction that is afflicting us. It did not spring from nowhere, it is rooted in the experience of trauma that came to us through the cultural, linguistic, religious, economic, political, physical oppression and abuses over the last few hundred years. Most of our people have bought into our own oppression and continue to live as subjects to a larger society that does not truly value our way of life and worldview.

We are well situated to overcome this depression because our values and way of life continue to flourish in many places and in many of us. Our challenge is to revitalize the spirit of all our people through a movement of true self-determination and justice. All aspects of our well being are related to each other. If our dream is to be healthy and flourish as a people, we must make the right choices in our life as individuals, as communities, and in our interactions with the external forces that impact us.

Subsistence is one such area that needs our immediate attention and action. This divisive issue can be the force that truly unites and inspires our people to stand for justice. It is so fundamental to our spirit and close to our heart, that if we would stand united and firm on this issue it could be the catalyst of our movement, something that awakens us.

In the late sixties in Barrow an Inupiaq man was arrested for shooting an eider duck. Immediately following a few hundred Inupiat hunters went out, shot two ducks each, and carried them to the magistrate in protest. Through this action of standing their ground, they forced the state system to respond by releasing the first man arrested. In the nineties, Katie John went to court to continue her way of life by fishing as her people always have rather than accept the oppression of the state system. In both cases, our people succeeded to make the point that it is unjust to deny us our way of life and spirituality through oppression of the continuation of our relationship with the land and animals.

Unfortunately, those who wish to continue the oppression of our people are persistent and prepared with ways to legally and politically counteract our success in these cases. They use words and phrases that attempt to divert us away from and overlook the real issues. Phrases such as “equality for all Alaskans” or “equal access” which have never been the reality for our people and do not address our being indigenous to this land, a short look into history (but not found in the books they write) will show the truth about the unjust, unequal, and cruel treatment of our people. Concepts like “rural preference” do not address nor recognize our right to continue our way of life and relationships with the land and animals as Native people.

All of this would be like us traveling to China and demand that we regulate their harvesting of crops and manage their land. This to the extent that they can no longer live their way of life and force them to depend on us for their sustenance through the money we make from their land and resources, which we would then own because we passed a law in our government saying so.

We must stand our ground on the subsistence issue and follow the leadership of the Barrow hunters and Katie John. We need to be strong and stand for the justice of our people. We must advocate for a full priority on subsistence for Alaska Native peoples / tribal members based on our traditional harvest and management practices (for personal, family, and tribal use). If we accept anything less than that we are accepting the oppression of our people.

We must first make this statement loud and clear, I pray that all the major tribal and corporate Native organizations, such as AFN, AITC, and Rural Cap along with the tribes and our supporters will stand in solidarity on this position. If that fails to bring justice, then it is time for us to do as Katie John and the Barrow hunters. If a hundred thousand Alaska Natives chose to live our way of life through subsistence despite the state attempt to regulate us, the system would have to respond by sitting at the table with us to discuss the issue.

In regards to the federal recognition of our tribes we must also take action. There is a concerted effort by certain lawyers, state legislators, and congressman to further control the autonomy and powers of our tribes through the federal government system. This is nothing new, for it is fundamental to completing the assimilation and colonization process of our people, lands, and resources. It is the way through which they hope to strengthen their control over all aspects of our being and the lands and resources of our people.

As tribes we have a direct political government-to-government relationship with the government of the United States. As sovereign governments our tribes should have complete rights to govern our people, traditional land base, and resources. Through congressional, executive, and judicial decisions the United States has claimed that our tribal governance is limited and in some cases completely denied. These decisions translate into an unjust oppression and control over us as a sovereign indigenous people and have led to our current economic poverty and to political manipulation among other detrimental impacts to our people. At a bare minimum, our tribes should have the same autonomy and tribal recognition to governance as the tribes in the continental United States. For true justice to be served, we would have ownership of all traditional lands returned to our tribal governments and a complete recognition of self-governing powers.

My hope is that this essay will be shared (forwarded on or printed) with as many Alaska Native people and others as possible to shed some thinking and light on these issues. I do not know all the answers, but I felt that my thoughts might help our people in some way. There is no more time for us to sit in meetings and discuss these issues; we must take action as a people.

I am the Chief in my village and I live from the land. I realized that this movement would have to come from us who live this life and are so aware of what we are not willing to give up, which is our freedom to live as our ancestors and continue our spiritual relations with the land and animals. If what I have written makes any sense to you, please do what you can to share it with our people in the villages, our leaders, and the major Native organizations. Your phone call or letter will make a big impact on their decision to make the right choice and stand with us. Let them know that we are ready to stand for our people, for justice, for our spiritual recovery.

Mahsi’ Cho