FROM THE ARCHIVE

Alaska to pay legal fees in subsistence case

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WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 9, 2002

A federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered the state of Alaska to pay legal fees as part of its war against the subsistence rights of Alaska Natives.

In a unanimous opinion, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals awarded several Native villages more than $220,000. A three-judge panel said the fees were reasonable and just.

"Alaska's arguments to the contrary are unavailing," wrote Circuit Judge Betty B. Fletcher for the majority.

The action reversed a federal judge's decision to limit the amount of money involved. The 9th Circuit said U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland didn't analyze the issue properly.

The ruling is another in a long line of victories, sometimes bitter, for Alaska Natives. Native elders like Katie John, an Athabaskan grandmother, and tribal leaders fought for more than a decade to have the state and federal government acknowledge their rights -- "since time immemorial," the appeals court noted -- to traditional hunting, gathering and fishing.

Eventually, the Department of Interior during the Clinton administration came around but only after a court sided with the villages. Former Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1999 assumed control over 60 percent of state water as part of the government's trust obligations to Alaska Natives.

Many Alaskans have had a more difficult time dealing with the situation. Republicans in the State Legislature paid current Secretary Gale Norton about $160,000 in taxpayer funds to try and overturn the favorable court decisions.

After the 9th Circuit last year upheld Native rights, opponents pressed for an appeal to the Supreme Court. Governor Tony Knowles (D), after meeting with John, decided against a challenge.

"We must stop a losing legal strategy that threatens to make a permanent divide among Alaskans," he said in August 2001.

The state's share of the $222,861.52 is to be decreed by a federal judge on remand, the appeals court said yesterday. The Bush administration did not challenge the fees.

The plaintiffs in the case are the village of Quinhagak, the village of Goodnews Bay, and the Association of Village Council Presidents, a coalition of 56 villages.

Due to her past involvement, Norton is recused from subsistence, leaving matters up to Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles. He recently changed the makeup of a citizens' subsistence advisory board to increase the views of sport and commercial fishermen who have traditionally opposed Native rights and an amendment to recognize rural and Native priorities to hunting and fishing.

Get the Decision:
NATIVE VILLAGE OF QUINHAGAK v. US, No. 01-35430/35466 (9th Cir. October 08, 2002)

Relevant Links:
Association of Village Council Presidents - http://www.avcp.org
Subsistence Amendment, Alaska Governor Tony Knowles - http://www.gov.state.ak.us/subsistence_amendment

Related Stories:
Alaska won't appeal Native rights case (8/28)
Alaska Native subsistence case upheld (5/8)