Williams family photo
Mike Williams and his granddaughter Megan at a hunting and fishing rights rally last year in Anchorage.

New Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Formed to Give Alaska Tribes a Say

Mark Trahant

Alaska reminds me of Washington state. Let me qualify that. Alaska reminds me of Washington state before the mid-1970s. Back then the region was deeply divided over treaty rights, salmon, and even the definition of what it meant to be an American Indian in modern times.

The official state government machine, ranging from biological reviews to law enforcement, was geared up to obliterate any tribal claims to salmon fishing. The clashes were not just legal; many were violent and tragic.

But then Boldt happened. Federal courts upheld the treaty rights of Native people. As author and professor Charles Wilkinson wrote: “The truest and most profound fact about the Boldt decision is that it was conceived and accomplished by Indian people. The transcendent meaning of the Boldt decision was to uphold the treaty rights of Northwest tribes, but it was also a national case about national obligations and values. The decision was a gift to all of America."

The 1974 ruling by U.S. District Judge George Boldt did something else. It established tribes as "co-managers" of the salmon. So tribes and intertribal organizations organized and invested millions of dollars on salmon habitat recovery, management, and even law enforcement to make certain that the tribal side of the bargain was met Most important: Tribes gained a meaningful say about wildlife management. Salmon are still under significant threat, but river after river is also showing improvement.

Alaska's story is a bit different – even as it evolves. The newly created state of Alaska took charge of fish and game in 1960. And a few years later the state began to close traditional fisheries claiming conservation. Instead of a treaty document that outlined a clear tribal right to hunt and fish, the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act ended the formal protection of aboriginal rights. However in 1980 Congress enacted a subsistence title to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The new federal law was supposed to protect customary subsistence uses by Alaska Natives.

But the definition of that "protection" was assumed by the state and federal governments with little meaningful role for Alaska Natives. And when Native voices did rise, the state's reaction was mostly litigation or criminal enforcement.

On May 8, 2015, 28 tribes on the Kuskokwim River started down another path, assuming co-management of fish in the river system by creating a Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. It's modeled on the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, an organization that was led for many years by the legendary Billy Frank Jr. (Frank is really an American hero. He went from being a "getting arrested guy" during the fish wars to a wise elder who was widely respected.) Mike William Sr. of Akiak, was elected chairman of the new commission.

"The people of the Kuskokwim River are no longer satisfied with serving in an advisory role to state and fishery managers," says a news release from the new commission. "The message, Kuskokwim River tribes and rural residents desire a "meaningful role" in the management of fish and wildlife as it is expressed by Congress in section 801 (5) of the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act, a role that until now most Western Alaskans agree has been meaningless.

I am convinced that co-management works. In Washington, Oregon and in Idaho there are salmon streams that would have gone extinct without a broader, more comprehensive management approach. Even small tribes hire people to work on habitat restoration or protecting baby salmon from predators. And it's hard to understate the importance of creating natural resource jobs because it gives Native people a new purpose, working on the land to improve wildlife.

"My thoughts go to my ancestors that have managed our resources for over 10,000 years. They have done a great job in making sure we have food security," said Chairman Williams. "We have traditional science and knowledge as we live right where they always fished. In recent times, the federal and state governments have begun to manage our resources. The policy is coming from far away."

Williams said that there have been too many advisory boards that many Native people felt were wastes of time because they weren't followed up with cooperation.

"I sat down for many hours with my uncle, the Late Joe Lomack, Traditional Chief, on the climate and natural resource issues," Williams said. "We got very concerned on the reports about Chinook disappearing up north then the Yukon River and then our Kuskokwim River. Now that we have established our Fish Commissions, both in the Yukon and Kuskowim Rivers, we have a structure in place to start to engage our involvement in meaningful ways to help manage our resources instead of always giving advice."

This is the moment when Alaska should embrace this approach. For too many years the state has spent significant resources litigating against a tribal say instead of listening. This is both expensive and ineffective. On the other hand, a meaningful role for tribes on wildlife issues has proven to be successful in Washington and other Northwest states.

It's time for Alaska to deliver this gift to America.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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