Native Sun News: Alaska Native advocates blast violence bill

40 percent of all federally recognized tribes in the United States are barred from access to VAWA’s full protection.

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

(Anchorage) – Alaska Native rights advocates say they are disappointed in the bill Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) introduced Aug. 1, for equal protection of indigenous family members under the recently approved federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

His colleague Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) drew piercing criticism in March from the Native American lobby for submitting language creating a “Special Rule for the State of Alaska”, which barred the members of 40 percent of all federally recognized tribes in the United States from access to VAWA’s full protection.

At least 100 tribes actively opposed the rule. At the time, Begich said the move was “frustrating” anad he promised to reintroduce the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act that he has championed since his election.

“We have not been able to move this bill so far because the State of Alaska administration opposes it,” Begich said in a social media post. “I can, and I will, be more aggressive with this legislation now that I am on the Indian Affairs Committee.”

Alaska Natives’ access to both civil and criminal justice under tribal jurisdiction is more limited than it is for tribes in other states.

Domestic violence is rampant in Alaska Native enclaves. Statistically, at least 51 out of every 100 Native women are the victims of sexual assault in the 56 tribes represented by the Association of Village Council Presidents.

Yet the tribes cannot prosecute criminal cases against non-tribal residents. The tribes’ civil jurisdiction is circumscribed as well.

Travel time and costs in law enforcement response and prosecution provided by state or federal agencies can be prohibitive for victims of injustice.

The situation has spawned a petition drive for “Congress to remove the ‘Murkowski exclusion’ that excludes Alaskan tribes’ right to issue civil domestic protection orders regardless of who the perpetrator is –native or non-native.”

After Begich introduced the new bill on behalf of himself and Murkowski, the Senate sent it to the Committee on Indian Affairs as S1474. The proposal did not have the content on which Alaska Native rights supporters had reached consensus before submitting it to Begich.

“This version is vastly different than the version we saw and were asked to review,” said Alaskan Native rights advocate lawyer Lloyd B. Miller. “While some changes were made that we suggested, the entire bill was revamped to be a bill about Alaska tribes implementing state law,” he concluded.

The proposed Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2013 says its purpose is “to encourage the State of Alaska to enter into intergovernmental agreements with Indian tribes in the state relating to the enforcement of certain state laws by Indian tribes, to improve the quality of life in rural Alaska, to reduce alcohol and drug abuse, and for other purposes.”

Edward K. Thomas, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said the new version has some good provisions in it. However, he added in a letter to council delegates, “We are generally disappointed in the last-minute-before-introduction changes that water down legislative intent.”

Critic Carol Daniel said the bill’s repeal of the Alaska exception is “about the only positive thing” in it. “I can’t believe they introduced this without giving us another chance to weigh in – especially given that this bill is completely different,” she said.

Daniel also noted that the bill is pointless because “the state doesn’t need federal legislation in order to be able to enter into intergovernmental agreements of the nature proposed here; [and the new] legislation doesn’t make it mandatory.”

The previous draft language had purported “to supplement state jurisdiction in Alaska Native villages with enhanced tribal and local authority to improve the quality of life in rural Alaska while reducing domestic violence against Alaska Native women and children and to reduce alcohol and drug abuse, and for other purposes.”

John Bioff, from the non-profit Kwerak, Inc. which provides government-funded services for Bering Straits tribal members, said he, too, was “very disappointed, if this was our one shot to have federal legislation introduced addressing tribal jurisdiction.”

Bioff was incredulous. “It’s hard for me to believe this is what actually got introduced,” he said.

Will Micklin, first vice-president of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes, complained, “The exceptions to the act are longer than its intended actions.”

Implementation “would appear to depend upon agreements from the State of Alaska that are discretionary and future grant funding through the Department of Justice,” he added.  Relying on yearly grant competition cycles creates uncertainty, he said.

Begich’s aide Andrea Sanders said the changes came about through consultations between both Alaska senators and the state’s Attorney General Michael C. Geraghty on July 31.

“We have had to make several changes since the last discussion draft you all saw in late June to keep the dialogue and momentum moving forward,” Sanders told rights advocates in a letter.

Native American Rights Fund Staff Attorney Natalie Landreth stipulated:  “This is now all about the state and is not at all what we have been discussing for years.”

Landreth was among those who took on Murkowski in March, saying that exclusions like the one the senator drafted have appeared in numerous bills over the years.  “These exclusions say to Alaska’s tribes that they are different and lesser than other tribes,” Landreth said.

“In the case of VAWA, it means that Alaska Native women are less deserving of protection, less important. I find that unconscionable,” she said.

Murkowski retorted: “Of Alaska’s 229 federally-recognized tribes, Alaska only has one reservation: Metlakatla. My amendment was introduced to spell out in no uncertain terms that Metlakatla would receive the same rights and jurisdiction granted to Lower 48 reservations. It was inclusive language.

“I cannot agree more that sexual and domestic violence is a blight on our state, especially in rural areas, and that what we are doing is not enough,” she continued.

“This is why the other language I included in the bill not was to reestablish and authorize funding for the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission to provide a permanent forum for the tribes, the state, and the federal government to work together on rural safety issues.

Landreth recoiled: “This all makes no sense. If the provision by its own terms only applied to reservations, Metlakatla would automatically be included; there would be no need for a special rule.”

Given the flap, the latest version of the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act may go by the wayside like its predecessors.

Bristol Bay Native Association General Counsel Bruce Baltar, legal adviser to 31 Alaska Native tribes, balked at the proposal. “I don’t see any reason to support this version,” he said. “It’s extremely disappointing.”

Landreth agreed. “It’s a nonstarter for me.”