Knowles drops appeal of Katie John case
Facebook Twitter Email

In a major victory for Alaska Native rights, Alaska Governor Tony Knowles (D) on Monday announced he will not appeal the Katie John subsistence case to the Supreme Court.

Expressing deep respect for the 85-year-old Athabaskan grandmother for whom the case is named, Knowles said an appeal would only draw out what has already become a costly battle. John's fight to maintain her traditional lifestyle began more than 10 years ago, he noted, and the state's continued opposition has only sparked a "divide" between rural and urban residents.

"We must stop a losing legal strategy that threatens to make a permanent divide among Alaskans," said Knowles at a press conference in Anchorage. "I believe Alaska must do everything it can to protect, not fight, the subsistence rights of rural Alaskans."

"Therefore, I cannot continue to oppose in court what I know in my heart to be right."

By dropping an appeal, Knowles will have satisfied Alaska Natives who have pressed him not to pursue the case. The Alaska Federation of Natives and others have criticized Knowles for keeping the case alive even after the state lost a number of times in the federal court system.

But Knowles has now drawn a battle line among whom he called "a small minority of urban legislators" in the state Senate -- all Republicans -- who have supported an appeal. The lawmakers have also opposed changing the state's constitution to rectify the conflict between state and federal law, a central issue in the case.

The state's constitution forbids preferences for any citizen -- rural, urban or Alaska Native. But federal law and the John case have upheld the federal government's trust responsibility to Alaska Natives, effectively creating rural subsistence priorities.

In advance of an appeal, Knowles called together a group of leaders, including Alaska Natives, to discuss a possible amendment. At the conclusion of the subsistence summit, they called for a change to the constitution.

A number of lawmakers, however, have still expressed opposition. In the past, the issue has failed despite five special sessions -- and Knowles is now ready to call another one.

John's case began in the late 1980s when she and other Mentasta Alaska Natives sought traditional use of a fishing camp on the Copper River. After being denied by the state, John filed suit in 1991 against the government, seeking to ensure subsistence rights for rural residents.

John subsequently prevailed several times, including a recent decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in May to uphold the case. The Department of Interior has already moved to assume control of 60 percent of the state's waters to ensure its federal responsibilities.

Secretary Gale Norton had recused herself from making decisions on the issue because the Alaska Legislature paid her $270 an hour to fight the case. Republican lawmakers approved her $60,000 legal bill and have spent $160,000 to fight the case without the entire Legislature's approval.

Knowles had until October 4 to decide on an appeal. He said he had met with John to discuss the issue and called her yesterday morning to inform her he was not pursuing the case.

"I support Katie John, her family and the thousands of rural families whose lives depend on subsistence," he said. "I hope someday all Alaskans can give a collective thanks to Katie John, a strong, courageous and good Alaska woman."

Get Knowles Remarks:
Katie John Case Announcement (8/27)

Relevant Links:
Subsistence Amendment, Alaska Governor Tony Knowles -
Native subsistence rights, Native American Rights Fund -
Alaska Federation of Natives -
Katie John et al. v. State of Alaska - Alaska Native Knowledge Network -

Related Stories:
Subsistence summit changes little (8/27)
March held for Native subsistence (8/22)
Subsistence summit calls for changes (8/17)
Subsistence summit begins in Alaska (8/16)

More on Katie John:
Katie John case having effects (5/11)
Alaska Native subsistence case upheld (5/8)
Norton cutting old associations (1/25)
Norton's legal work criticized (1/12)
Alaska Native elder dies (12/4)