Senate Testimony on Alaska Native Hunting & Fishing Rights

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Field Hearing
“Food Security and Viability of Alaska Native Villages”

Saturday, October 26th, 2013
Carlson Center
Fairbanks, Alaska

Written Testimony of Evon Peter
Former Neetsaii Gwich’in Chief and Founder of the Indigenous Leadership Institute

Shalak naii. Dzaa gihshii geenjit shoo ihlii. Vashraii K’oo gwatsan ihlii. Neetsaii Gwich’in ts’a Koyukon ihlii.

Welcome to the lands of the Dine (Athabascan) people of Interior Alaska. Our people have lived here for more than 14,000 years and we had food security. We are the longest standing continuous residents of Alaska. Our ancestors effectively managed the natural resources to ensure future generations would thrive from the bounty of our lands and remain a strong healthy people.

Then 146 years ago, void of dialogue with our Tribal Chiefs and leaders, the United States claimed ownership and plenary power over our Indigenous nations, lands, waters, and resources. We were declared ‘uncivilized’ and denied basic ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’, the founding tenets of the United States Constitution. This colonization perpetuates injustice and is the foundation upon which a continuing violation of our human rights persists. Over the last hundred years, our people have patiently advocated to acquire basic rights; such as to own land, to end segregation, and to acquire voting citizenship.

In the 1960’s Congress failed to afford Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples the opportunity to enter into government-to-government treaty negotiations to settle federal land claims. We are a respectful sharing people. If we had been invited into a fair treaty negotiation we would have transformed world history and paved the way toward a harmonious sustainable co-existence.

Instead, Congress chose to unilaterally enact the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, extinguishing aboriginal hunting and fishing rights and aboriginal claims based on use and occupancy. Still, despite this Act, Congress placed a clear expectation on the State of Alaska and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to protect the subsistence needs of Alaska Native peoples. This expectation was never fulfilled, resulting in Congress passing provisions in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980. Alaska Native leaders called for a restoration of Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights. Instead, Congress opted to provide a subsistence priority for rural residents, with the intention to protect Alaska Native hunting and fishing practices. This attempt failed to protect our way of life.

The State of Alaska and Federal agencies have failed us, leaving our traditional food systems under imminent threat. Our resources are being decimated at alarming rates; our people are being denied access to traditional hunting and fishing; and we continue to be excluded from a meaningful role in the management of our renewable hunting and fishing resources. The harvesting and sharing of fish, game, and other resources, and the ceremonies that accompany these practices, provide for the social, cultural, spiritual, and economic survival of our communities. 

Unfortunately, we can no longer remain patient as our people and communities are  dying from cultural genocide, being denied our way of life. This is resulting in high rates of substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence, anxiety, and generational trauma. Our villages lack economic opportunity, lack access to quality education, lack adequate infrastructure, and lack access to affordable, sustainable healthy food systems. 

I grew up with my grandfather, he and others in my village taught me the ways of respecting the land and animals, so that they would return to us every season to nourish our body and spirit. It was explained to me that there are appropriate times and conditions to harvest each species, so that the health and number of animals would not be adversely impacted. If certain species began to overwhelm others or block the capacity of regeneration, such as a beaver dam in a critical spawning stream, we would take action to help sustain a balance in the ecosystem. As a child, I thought that this way of life and knowledge handed down to me would simply last forever, as our tribe was so remote.

Little did I know that Alaska Natives across the State were already suffering greatly from the failure of Congress to protect our peoples’ civil and human rights. Little did I know that as an adult I would be a criminal for practicing the sustainable way of life that I inherited from my grandfather and ancestors. Little did I know that political posturing and mismanagement of fish and wildlife between the State and federal governments would result in a critical threat to the food security of our peoples. Little did I know I would be sitting here today to defend our way of life.

I have to tell you that our Native grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons are suffering. Fishermen’ nets are being cut; Hunter’ moose are being seized from their freezers; Elders are fined for practicing the way of life they were taught by their elders. We are criminalized every day of the year for simply being who we are and have always been. When traditional foods are made to be inaccessible, we are left to rely upon highly expensive processed foods. This is a very difficult situation in remote villages where household incomes fall far beneath the poverty line and unemployment far exceeds national rates.

I have to ask, has the federal government and State of Alaska not benefited tremendously from the wealth of resources in Alaska over the last hundred years? Have our people not treated you with respect? Is it too much to ask for justice and equality in our own homeland?

This is a critical moment in the history of Alaska. It is not too late for the federal government and State of Alaska to turn the tides of injustice and bring our people into the fold of equality. It is not too late to make the necessary investments in our cultures and villages, so that we may all face a more secure future. 

The first steps toward food security and equality are simple.

  1. Alaska Native peoples right to hunt and fish must be restored.
  2. Our tribal governments must be recognized with equal co-management authority.

The Alaska Native wisdom that provided food security for over 14,000 years would contribute greatly toward sustainable resource solutions for all people. Today, you have the opportunity to fix a failed system, ensure cultural survival, and literally put food back on the table for Alaska Native peoples.