Rural designation process could impact Saxman’s subsistence status

The Saxman Clan House.
The Saxman Clan House.

The Southeast Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council met in Saxman and Sitka last week to discuss and gather input on issues related to subsistence in the region, including a proposed change to the rural designation process.

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That change could make a big difference to Saxman, which has been considered non-rural since 2007, for the purpose of federal subsistence rights.

Many Saxman residents packed a meeting held at that village’s community center. That was expected.

Somewhat less expected was the number of Saxman residents and their supporters who also spoke during the subsistence meeting in Sitka the very next day.

Sylvia Banie is the mayor of City of Saxman. She says that the loss of subsistence rights has negatively affected the people living in her village.

“We’ve noticed a downward drift of civic apathy,” she said. “However, today, a much more beautiful reality can be ours. It is vital and essential to restore the rural status of Saxman.”

In addition to Saxman’s city government, the community has an IRA council, the Organized Village of Saxman, and Lee Wallace is the tribal president. He says the issue is not subsistence, which he referred to as the “S-word;” the issue is the Alaska Native way of life.

“It’s the gathering, the fishing, the harvesting of our resources throughout the land, water and seas of our territories that we manage on,” he said. “It’s our way of life and it’s very important to us.”

Joseph Thomas is a Saxman elder and, like several other speakers, began his comments in Tlingit.

“Let me translate for you. My English name is Joseph Thomas, … I grew up in Kake,” he said, and when he first heard the word subsistence, he didn’t know what it meant.

But his forefathers told him it meant that it was going to become harder to gather food. Thomas says that has become the case for Saxman, but he hopes the Subsistence Board will reverse that decision.

Harvey Shields, another Saxman elder, thanked the Sitka Tribe for letting him speak on their land. He says gathering food is an important cultural tradition that should be handed down, just like songs and dances.

“We took that up from our parents and aunts and uncles, as we did with putting up our food, our hunting, our fishing, to be able to hand that down as well,” he said. “I wasn’t able to do that, because of the situation that we’re in right at this time.”

That situation started about 15 years ago, when the Federal Subsistence Board initiated a review of rural designations. Then in 2006, the board published a proposed rule that would have kept Saxman rural, but the board eventually decided to vote against that published rule.

The board instead chose to lump Saxman together with its larger neighbor – Ketchikan. The Organized Village of Saxman immediately asked for reconsideration, which was denied. Last year, OVS filed a lawsuit in federal court over that decision.

If the Federal Subsistence Board changes the designation, that lawsuit could be dropped. And that change was encouraged during the Sitka hearing by more than just the Saxman visitors.

Former Sen. Albert Kookesh of Angoon and former Rep. Bill Thomas of Haines also spoke, representing Sealaska Corp.

Kookesh says Saxman isn’t just rural; it’s a traditional Native community, and all Southeast Natives should support Saxman’s subsistence rights.

Kookesh told a story about a landslide at Lituya Bay. He says the trees wondered what happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. The trees realized that by holding on to each other by the roots, they could protect each other from a similar fate.

“We came to hold hands with Saxman, and we’re asking those of you who are on the committee to hold hands with Saxman, also, because they’re your neighbors, they’re our neighbors,” he said. “Everything we do impacts them. If we hold each other up, we’re going to be fine.”

Michael Baines, chair of the Sitka Tribal Council, read a resolution in support of Saxman regaining its subsistence rights. And John Duncan of Sitka wondered why the government had to get involved. For thousands of years, he says, the Native people of Southeast have gathered what they need to survive.

“It’s not our fault that people are moving in,” he said. “It shouldn’t be our fault that we should have to pay the price because people are moving in. That’s our way of life.”

The proposed subsistence management rule would allow the Federal Subsistence Board more flexibility when deciding which communities should be considered rural for subsistence purposes. The proposed rule was published in late January.

Read the whole rule, and learn how to submit written comments.

Thanks to Rachel Waldholz in Sitka, for recording the hearing.