Facing the toughest audience of her political career, Sarah Palin held up her family, with its meshing of Native and white cultures, as an example of how Alaska can overcome its divisions between rural and urban residents.
"I look at Alaska as a family, and I want my own family to be used as an example of how it can work," Palin said before 4,000 delegates and attendees at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Friday.
Speaking in a candidates' forum, the Republican nominee for governor told a packed Egan Center that other politicians have used subsistence to divide and polarize Alaskans. She said she would not undo equality provisions of the state constitution. Instead she would try to protect subsistence for those who need it most by adjusting regulations and aggressively killing predators.
Subsistence is a centerpiece issue at this week's convention in Anchorage. Natives have been describing ways they say their hunting and fishing access is slowly being eroded.
Palin has been endorsed by sportsmen's groups whose positions on subsistence are often opposite that of Native groups. She said she came to the convention hoping to build mutual trust.
"To my dying day I will fight to protect the Native culture," Palin said, invoking her husband's Yup'ik grandmother, Helena Andree.
The convention gave Palin a polite reception. The audience saved its loud applause and whistles for former Gov. Tony Knowles, the Democrat, who had championed subsistence in the past.
"A constitutional amendment to protect subsistence is not a divisive issue. It's a uniting issue," Knowles said. "There is nothing more important we could do than put into the fabric of our government the respect and the guarantee that we will always have a subsistence way of life."
Citing programs, anecdotes and familiar Native leaders, an energized Knowles rang up points with the audience, which was frequently admonished by the moderator to save their applause until the end.
Knowles showed off an Athabascan necklace given him by Native subsistence hero Katie John. He said when he visited her fish camp "I realized I would never again fight in court what I knew in my heart to be wrong," he said.
The third candidate, independent Andrew Halcro, offered the AFN his usual mix of humor and blunt talk, mixed this time with a bit of fish-out-of-water humility.
Answering a question on divisions in Alaska, Halcro said the only urban-rural divide was in the state capitol, created by a handful of legislators he called ignorant of rural life. He cited his own story as a legislator who grew up in Anchorage.
"My freshman year, I stood up on the floor and made some stupid comments," Halcro said. He said he learned from Native legislators and from sitting on a Rural Governance Commission, where testimony about life in the Bush "changed my life as a legislator. Solving the urban-rural divide is, he said, "about solving that ignorance gap."
In answer to a series of lighter questions, Halcro admitted to the crowd he'd never used a honeybucket and didn't know what akutaq was.
"I was just serving akutaq across the street!" Knowles cried, referring to a special Democratic Party booth opposite the Egan Center where he'd dished out berry-rich "Eskimo ice cream."
On subsistence, Halcro said he also supported a constitutional amendment to allow a rural priority, as a step toward the state's resuming control of hunting and fishing on federal lands.
Knowles was put on the hot seat when he was pressed on his past positions on predator control. Asked if he had caved in to environmental interests on the issue in the past, he said his main concern was the "first harvest" of subsistence. He repeated his current position several times: "I will ensure predator control based on good science and local knowledge is pursued to make sure we have that first harvest."
Palin said she would support aggressive predator control and "manage our resources for abundance so that there's never a shortage."
The candidates agreed on a number of issues put to them by an AFN panel, including funding for power-subsidy programs, opposition to legislation forcing formation of borough governments, and support for Native hire on a future North Slope natural gas pipeline project. That last position seemed to contradict a stand against singling out Natives for hire taken by Palin when she spoke to BP employees last June.
Asked why he was running without much chance of winning, Halcro took shots at both his opponents.
"This election is about a governor who had eight years to do something and did very little, and a Republican who has had eight months to say something and has said very little."
After the forum, Palin enthusiasts were hard to find in the crowd -- though there were a few.
"If we don't have Sarah elected then we are going to have another stagnant period of non-growth in Alaska," said former state Sen. Jerry Ward, who arrived with Palin's party.
Another former state senator, Doyon chairwoman Georgianna Lincoln, said she found it offensive when Palin offered her mixed family as an example of urban-rural harmony.
"It's distasteful to say my husband is Native, my children are Native, so trust me," Lincoln said. "Just tell me what you believe."
"The question is, does that translate into positions that the Native community holds dear?" said former Tanana Chiefs Conference president Will Mayo. "People can hear between the lines."
The AFN does not usually endorse candidates for governor, and co-chairman Albert Kookesh said after the forum he didn't expect any endorsement this year.
Daily News reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily News reporter Alex deMarban contributed to this story.