9th Circuit Decision on Subsistence
Feature Story by Becky Dansky - 6/28/2001On May 7, 2001, the full panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Katie John v. United States & Kluti Kaah v. State (Alaska), an Alaska Native subsistence rights case. In an 8-3 vote, the court affirmed the landmark Katie John case. The decision caps nearly two decades of legal battles brought by John, an Athabaskan elder.
In the late 1980s, John and other Mentasta Alaska Natives sought traditional use of a fishing camp on the Copper River but were denied by the state. In 1991, John filed suit against the government, seeking to ensure subsistence rights for rural residents.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit first weighed in on the case in 1995, ruling in favor of John under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. After some delays, including a refusal by the state to grant priorities to Natives, the Department of Interior subsequently assumed control in 60 percent of the state's waters in 1999 and a federal court issued a final order in the case.
But after telling Alaska Natives he supported subsistence rights, Governor Tony Knowles appealed the decision to the 9th Circuit because he said it conflicted with state law. The Alaska Supreme Court in 1995 had come to the opposite conclusion of the appeals court.
Knowles' action angered a number of Alaska Natives, which he acknowledged at last year's Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) convention. The AFN considered the issue one of the most important for Native rights and was an intervener in the case. A number of resolutions were passed condemning Knowles' appeal in February 2000.