Federal law threatens Native seal hunting rights


May 9, 2019

Ted Hart posed with the first seal he took on February 2012. Hart said he learned to hunt from Wayne Price, who got the second seal pictured.

It was a flat, calm day on the water sixteen years ago when father and son Wayne and Steven Price were returning from an overnight camping trip on Sullivan Island in their Boston Whaler boat. Steven- now 28- remembers his father's recommendation that, instead of heading directly back, they shoot across to Eldred Rock. His dad had an idea: 12-year-old Steven was going to harvest his first seal.

The two circled around the south end of the rock and spotted a crowd of seals too far away, Price remembers. They crept back to the north end and waited.

When they were at close range, Steven shot. "My dad said he didn't see a second splash," Price said.

'Wow, I think you got it," Wayne remembers exclaiming.

As Alaska Natives, the Prices enjoy an unrestricted right to subsistence seal hunt, a cultural tradition for tribes who have lived off seal meat, preserved foods with their oil and created artwork out of hides for more than 5,000 years.

"Seal is so diverse," Steven said. "It's survival for some, art for others. We use the meat to eat and render the fat down into (something we eat, too.) We use the hides to make everything from moccasins, (traditional boots) and jackets to hats to tools."

But in Southeast Alaska, a federal requirement to determine who qualifies as Native threatens to make seal hunters extinct in the 21st century.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which banned most hunting of marine mammals, only those defined as Alaska Natives residing on the coast of the North Pacific Ocean or the Arctic Ocean are exempt.

But what constitutes "nativeness?" The law uses criteria taken from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which requires 25 percent blood quantum.

Blood quantum is certified by the Bureau of Indian Affairs based on a calculation of "Indian blood" passed down from ancestors.

The BIA issues "Certified degrees of Indian blood," similar to ID cards. Steven's lists his name, tribe, and blood quantum- .5.

"A lot of us who are Natives are all mixed breeds," Price said. He's half Native, meaning that his 7-year-old son may be his last remaining descendent able to legally seal hunt.

"It's like me saying, 'If you are Irish and German, you must be a quarter Irish to go to the grocery store," Steven Price said. "After a while, you won't be able to go to the grocery store. That is our grocery store."

More than 50 percent of Alaska Natives are not eligible for subsistence seal hunting because they fall below the blood quantum requirement, according to researcher Steven Langdon, who worked with Southeast Alaska Heritage Center to publish a 100-page document examining the issue.

The study states that the BIA registered "nearly 20,000 Alaska Natives of less than one-quarter blood quantum" between 2006 and 2016. "In the coastal regions the rate of newly enrolled Natives under 25 percent blood quantum was nearly 30 percent." In some regions around the Gulf of Alaska, it reached nearly 60 percent.

Langdon said the federal regulation is "particularly problematic for the southern areas that have been in contact with outsiders for a long time."

In Haines, the threat to cultural extinction is already coming to a head for some.

Chilkoot Indian Association's fisheries specialist, Ted Hart, has a 5-year old son whose blood quantum is registered at one eighth.

Hart called the regulation "out of touch." "It's a right of passage, learning how to seal hunt," he said. "It would be pretty unfortunate if I can't share that with my son."

He uses seal hunting as a way of sharing and perpetuating his culture. "I can gift the meat to (other Natives), and that plays into the whole social side of maintaining relationships and keeping that gift giving and reciprocity that's the foundation of Tlingit culture," Hart said.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act is enforced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and United States Fish and Wildlife Service. NOAA is the primary agency dealing with seals, sea lions and whales.

"We don't get a lot of hunters that we have to check, but we do make sure that they have a BIA card or a tribal affiliation card that shows that they can legally do it," NOAA enforcement officer in Juneau, Bob Marvelle said. "Unless Congress tells us differently, I can't do anything other than what's written in law."

The maximum fine for illegal hunting is about $30,000.

The restriction isn't limited to just harvesting seal, but also bans non-Natives from working with materials from the animal to create traditional clothing, tools and regalia.

Wayne Price said that, while he eats seal meat once in a while, he has donated far more of it to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. "A lot of our focus is mostly on the pelt," he said. "We turn it into leather and fur products."

Price said that the European Union's complete ban on seal products, implemented in 2010, is "very detrimental" to Native heritage, rights and culture.

"What they're doing is completely decimating a fur industry that belongs to indigenous people," Price said. "We're not able to survive because it requires a market."

Marsha Hotch was in the midst of sewing seal-pelt moccasins when interviewed on the phone last week.

Hotch said she has eaten seal meat all of her life, and learned how to sew the pelts into moccasins from her mother. "We smoke the seal and that's how our people survived in those hard times when there was no meat available, because oil is a way to preserve," she said.

Under federal regulation, the tradition of making moccasins will stop with Hotch's great-grandchildren in the next generation.

"That tradition will be lost if nobody can get near what is their inheritance of learning how to live off the land," Hotch said. "I try to encourage my family members to marry into Alaska Native or Native American (families)," she said. "But if they don't, I'll accept their choice."

Blood quantum requirement is not seen as a restriction by all stakeholders, said Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl, who serves on the Alaska Federation of Natives Subsistence Committee.

That committee adopted a resolution that would allow for supporting an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow for lineage dependence and eliminate the blood quantum, Worl said.

But the Native community is not in agreement.

"Some of the concerns are that some of the northern and western regions have not faced the blood quantum problem as of yet," she said.

In Haines, seal hunters support proving lineage-or dependance- rather than blood quantum for tribal admission, so that future generations will be able to carry out traditions central to their culture.

The Price's recount the same story of Steven's first seal sixteen years ago; Their times on the water together is bonding, they say.

"It's the closest I feel to my dad," Steven said.

Earlier this year, Steven Price hosted a class at Klukwan on how to butcher a seal.

"I'm just trying to help carry on the knowledge of everything I know as soon as possible," he said. "In a few generations, it's going to be no more."


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