Could Alaska Natives Decide the U.S. Senate Majority?

Could Alaska Natives Decide the U.S. Senate Majority?

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Pollsters are closely watching races in a few states to see whether Democrats are going to hang on to their majority in the U.S. Senate. In Alaska, incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, was behind Republican challenger Dan Sullivan in the polls by some five points until last week when Begich pulled ahead by a few points.

Pollsters say the Alaska Native vote may be the deciding factor in the close race. At last week's Alaska Federation of Natives convention, AFN president Julie Kitka told some 2,500 participants one of AFN's biggest challenges this year came in the 19-year-long fight to protect Native rights to hunt, fish, and gather food from the land and water, in a lawsuit against Athabascan elder and subsistence rights advocate Katie John.

"We began this year under attack," said Kitka. "Gov. Sean Parnell and his administration decided to appeal the state of Alaska vs. Sally Jewell, or the Katie John case, to the U.S. Supreme Court. The governor and his legal team," she continued, "were trying to overturn Native victories at the lower courts and shift the balance between the federal and state governments over management of subsistence on federal and public lands."

Kitka says one of AFN's proudest achievements is that it prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court in the Katie John case.

When it came time for a senatorial candidates forum, Begich was a clear favorite. Here's what he had to say about subsistence.

"In my heart, in my soul, deep in it, is my belief and commitment to the Alaska Native people," said Begich."It's not a situation of a campaign or a political season. It's about what I believe, believing in subsistence rights, making sure that it's an inherited right that you own and have, not granted, but you have."

Sullivan described his marriage to an Athabascan woman, and time he spent at her family's summer fish camp before saying the subsistence management system is broken. He downplayed his role as head of the Department of Law during the state's appeal of the Katie John case.

"When I was Attorney General," said Sullivan, "I did participate in an element of the Katie John case. This had been a case going for decades. There was no personal lawsuit against Katie John. I have the deepest respect for her like I do for my mother-in-law. That case was about, when I was involved, the extent of state control over our rivers."

In another case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled tribes here have the same right as lower 48 tribes to put land into trust, or into federally protected status. The Department of Interior recently began the lengthy process of creating new regulations to come into compliance with the court ruling. Sullivan calls that effort federal overreach, and recommends a step back to work out the details of putting land into trust.

"This has to be an issue that as a community, as a state, that we agree on first," said Sullivan. "I'm not sure there's a lot of consensus on lands into trust among different tribal groups, among corporations, among the question of what land it is. My approach is bottom up," said Sullivan. "Work with the communities, work with the stakeholders, then go to Washington and say 'we have idea that can help us.'"

Regulations will be developed for an application process for tribes wishing to put land into trust. Other regulations will spell out the criteria for deciding whether approve an application. Federal agencies anticipate a multi-year process to develop, discuss, and get public comment on the proposed regulations.

Begich supports getting all that going. "Before the regulation is finalized, I know there's additional consultation between the corporate, and village corps and regional corps, and the tribes that are taking place as we speak today and that needs to continue," said Begich. "But at the end of the day, there has to be some vehicle for some of these tribes that already own and possess property as being able to put it aside for the benefit of the next generation, the generation after that, and the generation after that. And not be fearful the land will be taken away because of non-payment of taxes or other things."

Sullivan and Begich also differ on development of the a large gold and copper mine near Bristol Bay, an area known for the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery. Begich opposes the Pebble Mine. At AFN, Sullivan declined to answer yes or no when asked if he supports the Pebble Mine. Instead, he said he supports the economic development process.

In the final hours of the convention, delegates of tribes, regional Native non-profits, and regional and village for-profit Native corporations went behind locked doors for an hour and a half before voting to endorse Mark Begich for the office of U.S. Senator for Alaska (see resolution 14-46).