The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission recently the opening of the subsistence king salmon fishing season on June 12, 2018. Photo: KRITFC

Alaska in focus at Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on subsistence

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is holding an oversight hearing on subsistence in Native communities on Wednesday.

Alaska will be well represented at the proceeding. The witness list includes a representative of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, as well as an official from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who works on subsistence in the state.

Subsistence has always been a major issue in Alaska, where federal law recognizes the priority of Native rights, as confirmed in the landmark Katie John litigation. State law, however, remains in conflict and efforts to address the disparity have proven unsuccessful.

But the situation at the federal level can be just as murky. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a long-running dispute involving John Sturgeon, a non-Native man who was kicked out of national preserve in Alaska for hunting moose.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who serves on the committee, welcomed the development. She said the court, which ruled in a prior stage of the case more than two years ago, should take the opportunity to make the law clearer for all Alaskans.

"I hope the court will again rule for Mr. Sturgeon, reject the flawed reasoning of the Ninth Circuit, and protect the subsistence rights‎ of Alaska’s first peoples and other rural residents under Katie John,” Murkowski said in a statement.

Katie John was an Alaska Native elder whose fight to preserve her subsistence way of life led to a landmark federal appeals court ruling. She passed away in May 2013 at the age of 97. Photo: Chris Arend / Ahtna, Incorporated

According to Murkowski, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals went too far with its ruling last October. The decision cited the Katie John precedent in holding that the federal government had a right to prevent Sturgeon from using his hovercraft to hunt moose.

In contrast to Murkowski's stance, tribal interests -- including the community of the late Katie John -- support the federal government's role. They believe the state of Alaska is using Sturgeon's case to undermine their rights, long after her original subsistence victory.

"The state’s motion for clarification makes it clear that it seeks to relitigate the Katie John public lands issue," the tribal interests wrote in a brief to the 9th Circuit. "But it may not bootstrap on to Mr. Sturgeon’s case to do so because the prior litigation is binding on both the state and Mr. Sturgeon."

Oral arguments in the case, known as Sturgeon v. Frost, are expected in the fall. Native interests have not yet filed any briefs with the Supreme Court.

Wednesday hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs takes place at 2:30pm Eastern in Room 628 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. The witness list follows:
Dr. Jennifer Hardin, Ph.D.
Subsistence Policy Coordinator, Office of Subsistence Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anchorage, AK

The Honorable Roy Brown
Chairman, Northern Arapaho Business Council, Fort Washakie, WY

Ms. Mary Sattler Peltola
Executive Director, Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Bethel, AK

Ms. A-dae Romero-Briones, J.D., LL.M. Director of Programs, Native Agriculture and Food Systems, First Nations Development Institute, Longmont, CO

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on “Keep What You Catch: Promoting Traditional Subsistence Activities in Native Communities.” (June 20, 2018)

Tribes and treaty rights

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: U.S. Supreme Court - Washington v. United States

U.S. Supreme Court Decision:
Washington v. U.S. (June 11, 2018)

U.S. Supreme Court Documents:
Oral Argument Transcript | Questions Presented | Docket Sheet: No. 17-269

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Decisions:
US v. Washington (May 19, 2017)
US v. Washington (June 27, 2016)

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