Alaskan Native Tribes Face Health and Government Challenges With Fishing Season

Fishermen pull sockeye from the gillnet in Egegik Bay during the height of Bristol Bay’s salmon season. (Nathaniel Wilder)

(CN) — Like many tribal members in Alaska, Melanie Brown lost a generation of her family to influenza in 1918. Now, with Covid-19 circulating among the tens of thousands of fishermen and cannery workers arriving in the remote villages of Bristol Bay, Brown fears history is repeating itself.

Growing up in Naknek, a small village in Bristol Bay, Brown heard stories about the 1918 pandemic from her great-grandparents. They told her the disease killed people they knew, often within just a couple days of falling ill.

“It was so fast-acting, it was like it would liquify your lungs,” Brown said.

Brown’s great-grandparents were among those orphaned by the pandemic. But they were teens — old enough to raise themselves, Brown said. An orphanage was founded in Dillingham for younger kids.

Today, the Kanakanak orphanage is Bristol Bay’s largest health clinic. And with 12 available beds and two ventilators, that facility is bracing for an influx of Covid-19 during a summer fishing season that triples the area’s population.

Tribal leaders asked the governor to close the area’s lucrative fishery this year to protect their members from the pandemic. His refusal spurred a complaint to the state’s human rights commission, which has so far refused to investigate their claim of racist discrimination.

And their ambassador to the United Nations says the problems flow from a foundation of racism: the formation of the state without the consent or participation of indigenous people.

Southwest Alaska is home to the world’s largest remaining runs of wild salmon. The fishery is also among the most economically valuable in the world, with sockeye alone generating over $300 million last year. Brown and other commercial fishermen united under the group Fishermen for the Protection of Bristol Bay decided to forego the summer season this year, to respect the desires of area tribes.

Melanie Brown (Photo courtesy of Bob Waldrop)

But thousands have made a different choice. An influx of fishermen and cannery workers have reached every corner of Bristol Bay to crew small fishing boats and labor shoulder-to-shoulder in the damp, cold canneries that process those fish.

The Curyung Tribal Council and the city of Dillingham asked Governor Mike Dunleavy to close fishing in Bristol Bay this year. But with cruise boats shut down and oil projects on hold as crude prices plummet, the governor refused. Instead, he issued a series of guidelines recommending social distancing and quarantine for fishermen and cannery workers arriving in the area.

Tribal leaders say it’s not enough.

“Our people are worried about living and being alive, not about having a bunch of money,” Robert Clark, president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, a tribal health organization, said over the phone. “It just takes one to pollute the whole village, the whole boat, the whole cannery.”

Bristol Bay is known for its lucrative summer fishing season. (Wikipedia)

Clark runs Kanakanak Community Health Clinic in Dillingham, along with a handful of other tiny health clinics on behalf of area tribes. With a population of less than 2,400, Dillingham is the region’s largest town.

Clark says the region needs a mechanism to enforce the rules and a spot for people with asymptomatic cases to quarantine. He said the few beds the city has provided for quarantine won’t cut it.

Clark’s organization partnered with Alaska and Indian Health Services to increase testing where people arrive — at the airport in Dillingham and at the harbor. But he says basing rules on the honor system isn’t protecting his people. The health corporation’s board of directors still wants the fishing season shut down.

“We’re getting on top of it as best we can,” Clark said. “We just don’t have trust in people in this case, when you have big money issues in front of you — even if you are an honorable person.”

Tribal nations in Alaska don’t have reservations with borders they can close. Under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, all tribes but one in Alaska agreed to give up territorial jurisdiction in exchange for money and the establishment of the Alaska native corporations that govern tribes today. The corporations make money for their tribal member shareholders, but have no jurisdiction over their land and cannot apply their laws to non-Indians.

Clark and the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation filed a complaint with Alaska State Commission for Human Rights on behalf of all federally recognized tribes in the region, claiming the forced reopening discriminates against tribes based on their race and national origin.

The complaint says the governor created a discriminatory system of separate classes of tribes by allowing some tribal nations to close to outsiders, even as he required those in Bristol Bay to open.

Robert Corbisier, the commission’s executive director, has so far refused to investigate Clark’s claims, writing in a letter that any increase in cases of Covid-19 that are tied to the fishery would be just as harmful for white people as it would for Alaskan natives. He added that white people in the area might actually be in more danger than Alaskan natives.

Corbisier also wrote that Alaskan natives can’t suffer discrimination based on national origin, as the complaint alleged, because they are born within the United States.

“All citizens of federally recognized tribes inherently have as their place of national origin, or ancestry, physical locations within the United States of America,” Corbisier wrote.

It’s a conclusion that Clark’s lawyers say ignores the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 — signed into law based on years of advocacy by Tlingit tribal member Elizabeth Peratrovich.

“The reasoning in your letter provides ammunition for every employer, bank, landlord, local government, service provider, and state agency to now actively discriminate against Alaska natives since you have unilaterally, as the executive director of the commission, decided that Alaska natives cannot suffer discrimination within the state,” attorneys Geoff Strommer and Craig Jacobson wrote in response to Corbisier’s letter.

Gov. Dunleavy hand-picked Corbisier and all but one member of the current commission after the former executive director and three commissioners resigned under pressure because of a Facebook post where the commission objected to a white man’s racist bumper sticker.

In April 2019, the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights posted a photo on its main Facebook page showing a sticker on a white man’s truck with a tactical rifle above the words “Black Rifles Matter.”

“In what world is this OK?” the commission’s Facebook post said above the photo.

Dunleavy asked the Department of Law to investigate the post, which led to the resignation of then-executive director Marti Buscaglia and three commission members.

Fishing boats in Egegik Bay deliver the day’s catch of sockeye salmon on July 8, 2019. Egegik Bay, at the mouth of the river of the same name, is part of the larger Bristol bay sockeye salmon fishery. (Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Wilder)

Dunleavy appointed their replacements, choosing Corbisier, Dunleavy’s longtime staff attorney, to be executive director — a job with the responsibility to act as gatekeeper, choosing which complaints the human rights commission will investigate, and which they will reject.

Corbisier declined to comment on the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation’s claims, saying the complaint is confidential, even though Clark and the health corporation have made it public. But Corbisier added something new: the commission is willing to investigate claims filed by white people who say they have suffered race discrimination.

“Every human being in the world is a member of a race and therefore is a member of a class of race,” Corbisier said in a phone interview. “It is possible that any person can be discriminated against based on race.”

Asked to clarify, he posed his own question: “Did I equivocate in any way?”

Later, Corbisier laid out the commission’s position via email:

“Yes, the Commission will investigate complaints of racial discrimination filed by non-minorities if the complaint is otherwise within our jurisdiction,” Corbisier wrote. “Every person has a race, which is a protected class under Alaska’s Human Rights Law.”

Dunleavy’s spokesman, Jeff Turner, stopped responding to Courthouse News’ emails when asked whether the governor supported a policy of investigating white people’s claims of racial discrimination.

According to Ambassador Ronald Barnes, who was appointed by elders to represent the interests of indigenous peoples of Alaska at the United Nations, the authority of the governor and his human rights commission is “a joke.” Barnes says the land was acquired without the consent of the true title holders: indigenous people.

Barnes was born in Dillingham’s Kanakanak Community Health Clinic. He fished for salmon in Bristol Bay for years before moving to Switzerland. And he has devoted his diplomatic career to the claim that Alaska is not a legitimate possession of the United States.

According to one U.N. expert, indigenous people in Alaska are living under an “apartheid regime.” In 2014, professor Alfred M. de Zayas at the Geneva School of Diplomacy presented his official investigation to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on the rights of indigenous people in Alaska. De Zayas told the U.N. that the government based its right to Alaskan land on legal precedent that “instituted doctrines of superiority and racial discrimination in law and policy.”

Seventy-five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Tlingit tribe’s claim to “full proprietary ownership” of the land indigenous people lived on. In Tee-Hit-Ton v. U.S., the court found that the tribe only had the right to occupy the land, and did not need to be paid for timber logged by white settlers on what is now the Tongass National Forest.

The court wrote that such a finding was justified in service of “the settlement of the white race in the United States where the dominant purpose of the whites in America was to occupy the land.”

And the ruling relied on precedent from another case, Johnson v. McIntosh, which held that Indian tribes’ way of living justified “considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency.”

De Zayas, the United Nations investigator, said in his report that the government can’t use racist ideas to deny Alaskan tribes’ right to make their own decisions about their nations’ futures.

“The denial of the right of self-determination on grounds of racial discrimination and the application of doctrines of superiority constitutes a crime against humanity tantamount to a form of apartheid,” de Zayas wrote in a letter detailing his findings.

Ambassador Barnes said the issue will be raised again this November, during the United Nations’ review of the human rights record of the United States.

Barnes says the state’s forced reopening of salmon fishing — and the human rights commission’s refusal to examine that decision for a racist basis — are just more examples of the same core problem.

“The fact that the U.S. military annexed Alaska for the stated benefit of white people, and then they want to deny that racism when we fight for our sovereignty — it’s an oxymoron,” Barnes said.

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