Climate change creates a worldwide threat that is distributed unequally across the globe. Alaska Natives are uniquely vulnerable to climate change, both because it is impacting the Arctic more than other regions and because of the importance of traditional hunting and fishing practices to Alaska Native culture. The fact that climate change is impacting them so severely, however, is not merely an accident of place, but a direct result of discriminatory state and federal policies that limit their ability to adapt.
A historical examination of federal and state policymaking regarding Alaska Native rights reveals two consistent themes. First, there are directly discriminatory laws—including deed covenants, voting rights restrictions, and segregated education—preventing Alaska Natives from having equal rights. Second, there is a pattern of ignoring aboriginal title and subsistence rights until there is a direct conflict with western desire for development.
While current protections for Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights are less than ideal, they are essential to protect their way of life. Through a series of Ninth Circuit decisions, a détente was reached that provided for federal management of subsistence rights for hunting and fishing. Any stability the Ninth Circuit decisions provided, however, was eroded when the Supreme Court’s recent Sturgeon v. Frost decision purported to leave those rulings in place while rejecting the underlying logic. While there are a number of different policy routes to preserve the current status quo, ongoing efforts to curtail access to subsistence practices suggest that the political will is currently lacking. There is a need for creative, progressive solutions that both restore Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights after a century of restrictive colonial policies, and are crafted to withstand the existential threat posed by climate change.