As event organizer, Tim Andrew, pulls protest signs out of a pickup truck, he says, “This has been building for quite a few years.”
Andrew says he’s been thinking about this day for a long time: a way to peacefully protest state management that has been conflicting with Yup’ik hunters and fishermen for decades.
One of the ralliers holds a colorful sign, “Feeding our families is not a crime.” The fishermen trials are clearly on people’s minds. Nick Hoover, who is from the village of Kasigluk, says that is why he’s here.
“To support the fishers, the protest fishers from last year,” Hoover says. “I have been keeping tabs on them and I just think it’s important to show them support.”
Others also talk about the fishermen who were citing last summer for subsistence fishing for Kings during a closure. For Andrew, though, the rally is about something much bigger than a trial.
“It’s people primarily from Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula that are controlling our way of life, our access to our fisheries, our access to our game,” Andrew says.
Andrew says that politics are getting in the way.
As people continue to arrive, most ralliers are timidly facing one another in the parking lot until one woman gives them some friendly encouragement.
“Face the road so people can see you,” Monica Sheldon yells to others and laughs. She holds a sign that reads, “Fish equals culture.”
“My sign means that the fish that we fish for, the salmon especially, and any kind of fish actually, is the food that we live on and gives us strength and helps us sustain our way of life,” Sheldon says.
Andrew gets out a small microphone to address the crowd, welcoming them. With mic in hand, he leads the group in a march to the Bethel Court House via Bethel’s main road. They stop at Watson’s Corner and wave their signs at the traffic passing by. Several cars honk in response to the whoops and cheers.
At the courthouse a single drum is heard as several people take turns speaking in support of subsistence rights. Akiak tribal leader, Mike Williams Sr. says there is a need for tribal co-management of resources.
“Our people have managed our resources for 10,000 years. We’ve done a pretty good job and that’s a pretty good track record,” Williams says. “And our people, our tribal governments must be afforded on a government to government basis with the federal government and that is the federal law. But the State needs to honor that as well.”
It’s been about an hour and a half and as the crowd leaves, Andrew says he thinks went well. He says subsistence supporters need to continue to express their rights to the state government management groups.
“Because all those people control how we eat, when we eat, how we hunt, how we gather, how we fish,” Andrew says.
Andrew’s says often times those regulations and enforcement practices go against the Yup’ik cultural and traditional way of life.