The Katie John Case: Alaska Natives Shouldn't Have to Wait a Century to Get a Fair Share

Mark Trahant*

Reprinted from Trahant Reports with the author's permission, April 1, 2014,

The Katie John case is at an end. Or perhaps another beginning.

First the background: The Supreme Court this week rejected the State of Alaska’s petition to review lower court rulings that affirm rules for subsistence hunting and fishing on federal land and navigable waters. Tara Sweeney, co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives said in a news release, “This is not only a victory for the late Katie John and her extended family, for Alaska Natives and other rural Alaskans who depend on subsistence to feed their families, but for all Alaskans who seek a prosperous, fair and equitable society.”

But that call for an equitable society remains a distant goal in Alaska. Because the appeal of the Katie John case did not have to be.

More than a decade ago, former Gov. Tony Knowles said, “The State of Alaska will not appeal the Katie John case to the United States Supreme Court” and “that from this time on, the state will do everything we can to protect your subsistence rights.”

Fast forward to the current Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican.

He told the Juneau Empire that he disagreed with Knowles and pushed to have the case heard by the Supreme Court. “What that means is that for every river, for every stream that touches or crosses federal lands for decades to come, there will be litigation on this issue because there’s been no certainty or clarity in the law from the court,” Parnell told the newspaper. “I’m not talking about certainty on whether subsistence exists or not. I acknowledge that is a part of our people here. What I’m talking about is legal certainty of what the boundaries are for all parties and as long as there’s an opportunity to fight over those boundaries, there will be division among the races. That is not something I can abide by. That is not something I can live with. In order to get that legal certainty on what the boundaries are for everybody involved we did appeal, and that’s why I took that approach.”

So the State of Alaska, especially under Parnell, spends extraordinary resources trying to beat down any whiff of Alaska Native rights. This is true on the subsistence issue — far more complicated than this one legal development — or when it comes to the very nature of tribal governments. Parnell’s administration clings to the notion that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was the final resolution, giving the state all the power to decide what’s what.

But the Katie John case, like others before it, show that many Alaska Natives are still waiting for certainty — especially when the state can’t abide after a victory by Alaska Natives.

I was re-reading some of the work of Tom Richards Jr. after I had heard he had died this week. Richards covered the action in Congress that led to ANCSA for the Tundra Times. “Let's turn it around and look at the real situation,” he wrote. “The natives are being forced to give up their land under the traditional American principle of manifest destiny and all they’re asking is a fair shake.”

Thirteen years ago, at a conference looking back at ANCSA, Richards predicted that it was possible that it “may take 100 years or more to resolve some issues, such as land title conveyances and establishing management regimes to govern land use and management of fish and game resources.” He said the unintended consequences “include ongoing disputes over subsistence rights because of the ANCSA provision extinguishing Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights, confusion about Alaska Native tribal status because ANCSA is silent on this issue, and deep-rooted controversy involving some Native corporations because of varied shareholder expectations and desires which sometimes have fostered chaotic management shifts.”

It shouldn’t take a century for Alaska Natives to get a fair shake.

*Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Comment on Facebook at: