Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Anchorage Daily News Demands Alaska Game Board Chairman Ron Somerville's Resignation Over "Free Beer" Remark

In a craven and disgusting attempt to pander to the Alaska Native community, the Anchorage Daily News today (November 8th, 2006) editorially called for Alaska Board of Game Chairman Ron Somerville to resign his position over some "free beer" remarks made at hearings taking place last month. Click HERE for the full ADN editorial column.

The incident, reported by the Anchorage Daily News on November 2nd, took place on October 7th when the Board of Game was holding hearings to discuss proposed changes to regulations governing the hunt of the Nelchina caribou herd. The Game Board is restricting subsistence hunts in the Nelchina Basin, an area rougly bounded by the Parks, Denali, Richardson, Glenn, and Tok Cutoff Highways north and east of Anchorage, to include the popular caribou hunt, and already reduced the number of caribou permits per household from three to two. They've also made it more difficult for Alaska Natives to proxy-hunt for Native elders, claiming the practice was abused. Some even accused the Game Board of wanting to restrict susbsistence hunting enough to create a surplus of caribou, so that more permits can be awarded to open a sport hunt in 2007 for the first time in 17 years.

Fourty-five people were in the audience, including several Alaska Natives, when the incident occurred. Three other Alaska Natives had previously signed up testify, but when their names were called, there was no response because they did not show up. It was then that Somerville responded, "There must have been a run on free beer or something." Then Somerville called Donna Hicks of Copper Center to speak. Hicks was present. "Don't like beer, Donna?" Somerville asked.

Some general laughter followed the statements, though it's impossible to tell from the recording who is laughing. However, several Natives in the audience were offended. "I was like, 'That was uncalled for, especially since he knew we were all Indians,' " said Tammany Straughn of Cantwell. "It's stereotyping, like, 'Oh they're drunken Indians.' That's the way I felt."

Fellow Board member Ben Grussendorf of Sitka, a former state House member best known for his signature walrus moustache, "kind of stiffened up" when he heard the comment, he said. Grussendorf said the meeting had become somewhat informal, even conversational. "I think he meant it in jest, and it just didn't sit well," Grussendorf said.

However, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) became involved when informed of Somerville's comments by Brenda Rebne of Ahtna Inc., the Glennallen-based regional Native corporation for the Copper River area. The Alaska Federation of Natives then voted at their recent convention to ask the U.S. Department of Justice, the Alaska Human Rights Commission and the state ombudsman to investigate the remarks. If the remarks are deemed "inappropriate, discriminatory, oppressive or discourteous," AFN will ask the state to pursue "corrective action," including removing Somerville, according to AFN Resolution 06-05 (scroll down to page 18 of the document) passed at the AFN convention.

Upon learning of the outrage his remarks engendered, Somerville was immediately apologetic. He said he was merely trying to lighten tension at the end of the long Game Board meeting when he made his comment about beer drinking. "If I offended somebody, I'm terribly, terribly embarrassed by that, if it was taken other than as just a way of breaking the tension and I apologize for that. I don't think I have to, to be honest with you, but if that's what happened and someone took it wrong ..." he said. However, Somerville, who has a long history of angering Natives with outspoken views on subsistence, then added that the uproar in the Native community over the comments is a diversionary tactic.

Somerville, appointed chairman at that October meeting, is no stranger to political fire storms or Native issues. For much of the 1980s, he headed the pro-sport hunting and fishing Alaska Outdoor Council, leading efforts to overturn the state's old rural priority for subsistence. In 1991, Gov. Wally Hickel suggested Somerville to head the Department of Fish and Game, touching off a statewide flurry of protests by Alaska Natives. The appointment, ultimately rejected by the fish and game boards at the time, was critical because the state was seeking new ways to provide subsistence hunting and fishing. The state's rural priority had been ruled unconstitutional in 1989.

Sounds like an innocent mistake for which a public apology would be sufficient, right? Of course, as is the case for most non-white advocacy groups, the AFN wants to make a Federal case of it, but that's to be expected, because that's what they do.

The Anchorage Daily News sums up their editorial by concluding that Ron Somerville is a disruptive figure who didn't belong on the Board of Game when Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed him. And now, in thinking that beer and Natives are material for a joke -- and offering a less than full apology -- they believe he has irreversibly compromised his standing to help decide statewide game management policy, and so should resign.

Analysis: Somerville's second comment, directed to Donna, was clearly inappropriate for a public official running a public hearing because it tagged her with the sins of the no-shows. However, his first comment was simply a way to lighten the tension, and is based upon fact, since Indian people continent-wide have difficulties handling alcohol. Many Alaska Native villages courageously recognize this problem and declare themselves "dry" villages to effectively preempt the problem within their areas of responsibility. The truth isn't any less true simply because it's offensive.

And what constitutes a "proper" apology in the eyes of the Anchorage Daily News? Should he rend his coat or don sackcloth and ashes in public? The public apology has become nothing more than a ritualistic pro forma mea culpa which is rarely genuine and generally meaningless. The guy said he was sorry - what more does the ADN want?

And since when does supporting a rural subsidence priority a prerequisite for service on the Game Board? Shouldn't the Game Board represent a cross-section of ALL Alaskans, including those who do not support a subsistence priority? Apparently ADN attaches a religious signficance to the subsistence priority, referring to subsistence as a "keystone" of Native culture. Does this mean anyone who disagrees is a heretic to be frozen out of public life? Apparently the ADN editorial staff thinks so. They also apparently think that honest disagreement with Alaska Natives constitutes "disrespect". And since when does Somerville's political activity before his appointment to the Game Board pertinent to whether or not he should resign?

Why doesn't the Anchorage Daily News take issue with the failure of the three Alaska Natives who signed up to testify to show up? Punctuality, while on the surface a minor issue, is one of those values which separate advanced cultures from evolving cultures. White and East Asian nations, where punctuality is expected and stressed as a virtue, are more prosperous than Latino or African nations, where punctuality is not considered as important. If you sign up, show up!

And the ADN appears to apply a double standard to white and non-white political "offenders". Back in September 2005, when the Anchorage Assembly fired longtime staffer Elvi Gray-Jackson, the overseer of the local NAACP, Rev. Dr. William Green, descended upon Assembly Chambers with a rent-a-mob and demanded the resignation of Assembly Members Dan Coffey and Anna Fairclough, defaming and smearing them with false charges of racism. Yet while the Anchorage Daily News counseled "moderation", they never called for Dr. Green's resignation, although he's been a divisive force in Anchorage for several years. Perhaps ADN should explain that disparity.

Fortunately, this appears to be a exceptional departure from the Anchorage Daily News' normally reliable left-of-center advocacy. However, Ron Somerville ought to stay the course and resist this pressure. We need a cross-section of public opinion on the Game Board to ensure the creation of public policy appealing to a broad consensus of Alaskans. A rural subsistence priority measure should eventually be placed on the ballot for voter consideration, but subsistence should not be viewed as a religious ceremony akin to the Lord's supper or temple marriage.

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1 comment:

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