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Alaska Native tribes fighting to overturn laws criminalizing their traditional way of life

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Posted at 10:52 AM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-19 12:52:14-05

In a place where mountains are the only skyscrapers and the road to get home can’t be found on GPS, you’ll find the tribal ways that have survived for thousands of years.

“We don't have to go to the local market. We'd go out in the woods, and everything we take, we do it with respect, utmost respect," said Chief P.J. Simon.

Chief Simon grew up in a small Alaskan village and was taught to live off the land.

“We always think about how we're going to catch our next meal. We plan it out. We go by the oral traditions of our elders,” he said.

But, the chief remembers the day that way of life began to change.

"The great white father came in and said, ‘that's not your land anymore,’” recalled Simon. “I remember going home. I looked up at my dad and was like, ‘What did they mean?’ He said, ‘Well, time will tell."

Since then, the U.S. government has gone back and forth. Prior to 1971, tribe members were free to hunt and fish as much as they wanted on tribal lands.

Then, in 1971, Congress passed a law called the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that said the tribes no longer owned the land, but they could make a claim for a certain amount of acreage on their tribal lands. For tribes, this meant they couldn’t live, hunt and fish as they pleased. Many of their lands were no longer their own.

Then in 1980, in an attempt to correct what was widely viewed as a mistake: Congress allowed tribes to hunt and fish on some but not all lands with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA.

ANILCA created more than 150 million acres of federally protected lands, and subsistence hunting was protected on those lands. But, the Tanana Chiefs Conference, representing dozens of tribes, said this legislation does not do enough for those living off the land.

“The actual language is not protection of Alaska native hunting and fishing rights or authority for tribes to manage hunting and fishing resources,” said Natasha Singh, an attorney for the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

“The world's changed,” said Chief Simon. “Now, you have to almost have a lawyer to go out hunting the renewable resources that we try to harvest."

Simon said the confusing rules force him and many others to break the law just to eat.

“Even I as an urban Alaskan Native now, I love to hunt and fish and feed my people at home,” said Chief Simon. “I can't go back by the book and hunt, but I do anyway and pass out food."

It’s food Chief Simon uses to feed his own family, too, but each time he hunts, he worries he’ll face fines or charges.

In just the last year, another tribal member strayed off federal land and was criminally charged changed when he hunted to feed his family.

“We are so left out of everything politicized by lawyers, by lobbyists, by people who don't understand our ways and want to put more restrictions,” said Chief Simon.

Singh says this lack of help from the government makes her community feel marginalized.

“The fact that these governments listen to non-Native people, the environmentalists, the state of Alaska, the urban hunters, and don't listen to tribal leaders demonstrates racism, I believe, systemic racism,” said Singh.

Now, 40 years after this began, the tribes are finally getting the resources to legally advocate for themselves.

“We're no different than a developing country, like Haiti, I always say at least it's warm there,” said Simon.

“We are asking America to wake up,” said Singh. “Take a look at what's happening in Alaska. Tribal communities are trying to protect their land, so their people, our people, can continue their way of life.”

They hope with some help from lawmakers and support from the rest of the country, their ancient ways will not be watered down, but be lifted up for generations to come.