The new Board of Game chairman apologized Wednesday for implying that Natives absent from a recent meeting may have been off drinking beer.
Ron Somerville, who has a long history of angering Natives with outspoken views on subsistence, added that the uproar in the Native community over the comments is a diversionary tactic.
The Game Board is restricting subsistence hunts in the Nelchina basin north and east of Anchorage, including the popular caribou hunt, and Natives from the region strongly oppose the changes.
Somerville, of Juneau, said he was trying to lighten tension at the end of a long Game Board meeting last month 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.
A Native woman privately complained to him at the meeting that the comments were offensive, he said. He had not heard of any other complaints until now, he said.
The Alaska Federation of Natives voted Saturday to ask the U.S. Department of Justice, the Alaska Human Rights Commission and the state ombudsman to investigate the remarks.
Alcohol is a sensitive topic in Native villages, where it's blamed for high rates of violent crime, suicide, fetal alcohol syndrome and other ills.
If the remarks are deemed "inappropriate, discriminatory, oppressive or discourteous," AFN will ask the state to pursue "corrective action," including removing Somerville, according to a resolution passed at the AFN convention.
Somerville made his remarks Oct. 7. During a public comment period, he called on three people in a row signed up to speak but who weren't there, according to a recording provided by Game Board staff.
The three were part of a group of more than 50 Alaska Natives from Copper River-area communities who had been speaking throughout the day.
Some charged the board with wanting to restrict subsistence hunting to create a surplus of caribou, leaving enough to open a sport hunt for the first time in 17 years next year.
After the third speaker didn't show, Somerville said:
"There must have been a run on free beer or something."
Somerville called Donna Hicks of Copper Center to speak.
Hicks was present. "Don't like beer, Donna?" he asked.
Some general laughter followed the statements, though it's impossible to tell from the recording who is laughing.
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."
Board member Ben Grussendorf of Sitka "kind of stiffened up" when he heard the comment, he said.
There were about 45 people in the audience. About six Natives looked at each other, apparently questioning the remarks, 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.
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, 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.
The AFN delegates were told of Somerville's comments by Brenda Rebne of Ahtna Inc., the Glennallen-based regional Native corporation for the Copper River area.
The board wants to make the Nelchina rules so cumbersome that people won't apply to subsistence hunt, Rebne announced at the convention.
She pointed out that the Game Board has made it impossible for many young people to proxy hunt for elders, among other restrictions.
In October, the board also reduced the number of caribou permits per household from three to two.
The board plans to continue discussing, but not make decisions on, Nelchina subsistence hunts at its Nov. 10-15 meeting in Wrangell, said Matt Robus, state director of wildlife conservation.
Furthers restrictions the board might consider at an Anchorage meeting in March include reducing ATV and other vehicular use, such as planes and RVs that take hunters nearer to prey, and awarding permits based in part on household income.
The Nelchina caribou hunt has been contentious for years, with many hunters saying it's unfair and excludes too many.
Thousands of Alaskans apply every year to hunt caribou in the basin, an area roughly framed by the Parks, Denali, Richardson, Glenn and Tok Cutoff highways, but sometimes only a small percentage win permits.
Once the board finishes rewriting the rules, it will redefine the amount of caribou and moose necessary for subsistence hunts. If there's a surplus of caribou, the board could create a general drawing hunt for all Alaskans after subsistence needs are met.
That's not the board's intent, Somerville said Wednesday, but it might end up that way.
Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4310.