An Anchorage Daily News article entitled "Caribou slaughter leaves calves stranded", published on July 29th, 2008, tends to sum up the pertinent facts of the case. During the period July 4-8, the open season for subsistence hunting of caribou in the Point Hope area when local residents are permitted to take up to five caribou per day, an estimated 120 adult caribou were slaughtered along a 40-mile long trail in the area. These were believed to be part of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd numbering up to 377,000 caribou in the general area. Of the 120, at least 60 were simply left to rot. Some had calves which are now orphaned; some calves were observed still trying to suckle on their mothers' rotting carcasses (by the way, these calves are also under a death sentence, because they did not acquire survival skills from their mothers). According to news reports, once Point Hope residents learned of the caribou congregating just 25-30 miles from their village, they dropped everything and began hunting them. This is why Point Hope is the primary focus of the investigation at this time.
Upon initial investigation by the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, after they first learned of the incident on July 16th, suspicion immediately fell upon the two closest Native villages, Point Hope and Kivalina, since there was no evidence of air taxi activity which would have implicated outsiders. When troopers initially contacted the villages, Point Hope Mayor Steve Oomituk immediately said the "right" things, proclaiming his outrage over the slaughter and affirming that this is contrary to customary subsistence tradition, as documented by ADN in a July 26th story entitled "Troopers investigate mass caribou killings". Troopers then narrowed their focus on five possible perpetrators living in Point Hope.
It is at this point that the "speed bumps" began popping up. All of a sudden, another Point Hope Native leader, Jack Schaefer, who is identified as the president of the Native Village of Point Hope (or the "tribal" president, who presides over tribal affairs vs. the mayor, who presides over civic affairs), first began bitching about the case being made public, then began complaining that Point Hope was being unduly and unfairly targeted, and that the mass slaughter could have been perpetrated by rogue hunters from other areas. This is possible, but since Point Hope and Kivalina are the nearest organized villages, it is only natural and proper for the Troopers to begin their investigation there. Kivalina has yet to be investigated as closely, but Kivalina Mayor Burt Adams seems better prepared to cooperate with troopers.
In addition, Jack Schaefer is concerned that the perpetrators might be buried in Alaska's prison system for a long stretch if tried and convicted under state law. He feels this would not solve the problem, so he wants to subject the perpetrators strictly to "tribal justice" and to handle it locally. This actually sounds good, except for one small problem - there is NO tribal court in Point Hope, despite the fact that the community of 700 could easily support one. By delaying and obstructing the troopers' investigation, the Native leaders of Point Hope are actually cutting off their noses to spite their faces; they are delaying the ability of the troopers to potentially clear the residents of Point Hope of any complicity in the crime, which, in turn, will make it more difficult to track down any "rogue hunters". Consequently, the situation seems to have reached an impasse, as described in this July 30th ADN article.
And also on August 2nd, in an editorial entitled "Caribou slaughter", the Anchorage Daily News declared its editorial position on this issue. While they decry the caribou slaughter and chide Point Hope authorities for "not fully cooperating", they call for "diplomacy" and an outside mediator, perhaps the North Slope Borough, to break the impasse. ADN believes Point Hope is reluctant to cooperate with troopers because state laws have not always accommodated legitimate Native subsistence practices and enforcement may have been to rigorous and inflexible. In the past, some village residents have complained that they were charged with violations for just trying to provide for their family and community, as they have always done.
But ADN also believes there is a cultural impasse as well, and this is how they describe it:
...the case also highlights an important cultural difference in the Native and Western conceptions of justice.
Native cultures and communities are generally close-knit. When someone in their ranks commits an offense, authorities are more likely to emphasize healing the breach through confession and rehabilitation.
In Western culture, people are more disconnected, more anonymous to each other. Enforcing rules, rather than maintaining relationships, is paramount. Violations are often met with stern consequences (and in the United States, our rate of incarceration is unmatched by any other Western democracy).
What we need here is a symbiosis of the two systems. Point Hope Native authorities deserve the first opportunity to hold the offenders accountable. Confession and rehabilitation are necessary corrective steps. And by allowing Point Hope authorities the first opportunity to deal with the problem, we show respect for local Native traditions and help build bridges.
However, the Point Hope Native community must understand that if the perpetrators do not receive some tangible punishment, they will alienate the greater Western culture, which demands deprivation of some sort as part of the rehabilitation process. The perpetrators cannot be allowed to get off just by having a good cry and a group hug; they must suffer deprivation of some sort, whether it be deprivation of liberty or of resources. Nothing less will do. It is a two-way street. As a confidence-builder, it's also time Point Hope establish a tribal court to visibly symbolize their commitment to hold their people accountable.
And Alaska Natives must understand that while we should have respect for their culture and traditions, they must have respect for our laws, which are just as binding upon them as upon us. Culture can neither be an excuse for lawbreaking nor a refuge from accountability, as a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial, which calls for a hard-line approach, implies. At the same time, the greater society should understand that most Bush Natives do NOT waste subsistence resources in this fashion; in particular, the Gwich'in are scrupulously protective of their caribou resource, to the point that they oppose opening up ANWR because they fear the effect upon their caribou.
Bear in mind that this impasse could affect upcoming election results in the August 26th primary. The extremists who crafted Alaska 2008 Ballot Measure Two to further restrict airborne hunting for predator control could use this caribou slaughter as emotional leverage to bamboozle Alaskans into voting Yes on this measure. Ballot Measure Two would allow only Department of Fish & Game employees to perform airborne predator control, and further restrict the process. Slower and less efficient response to wildlife contingencies would result. Read the Statement in Support of 05HUNT Initiative and the Statement in Opposition to 05HUNT Initiative
Just another reason why Point Hope needs to rethink their attitude and start cooperating with troopers. Yes, we need to be as diplomatic as possible, but we must make it clear that we are quite willing to use a dynamic solution if no diplomatic solution is forthcoming. This problem cannot be allowed to fester.