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Violence Against Women Act: The great divide for Alaska tribes

Myron Naneng
A fishing boat pulled ashore near Mekoryuk, a community on Nunivak Island, which lies off the coast of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Courtesy Valerie Bue / AVCP

Between February 1, and March 7, 2013, the day President Obama signed the Violence Against Women's Act into law, 44 battered women and children from 15 Yukon-Kuskoskim villages had been served by a Bethel women’s shelter. This excludes crisis calls, legal advocacy, and walk-ins. Most of the Tribes from which these victims came exercise some form of Tribal court jurisdiction. VAWA’s Alaska language blatantly discriminates against these tribes by disregarding this critical piece needed for the administration of local justice in Alaska.

Setting aside the frightening statistics, wasteful dollar signs underscore the high price tag needed to bring these offenders to justice. The costs associated with flying both victims and offenders into Bethel from far-flung villages for services and prosecution are an unnecessary waste of already pinched state law enforcement and judicial resources. It is time for Alaska to stop fighting Tribes and work together on a government to government basis. Cooperating on funding is fine, but when it comes to a meaningful use of resources, the State belligerently resists. The Lower 48 States already get it. Some have been enjoying a partnership with Tribes on a sophisticated level for almost 30 years. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with reservations. These states have left the dusty battlefield and replaced cannons and rifles with comity and full faith and credit. Using comity, which is simply mutual respect, in a region where respect is the cornerstone of communication is a no-brainer.

Senator Murkowski described VAWA as not really exclusionary but "in"clusionary, which makes as much sense as being "kind of pregnant." With due respect to Metlakatla and Senator Murkowski, there are 227 other Tribes in Alaska that desperately need to protect their women and children from non-member offenders. There is not one Tribe in the entire country that does not have some percentage of non-member residents. What is the logic behind treating Alaska Tribes different from the lower 48 Tribes? In 1948, the Aleuts finally saw an end to 76 years of unlawful servitude by the federal government. The new VAWA reeks of similar discrimination.

The debate over whether VAWA excludes or includes is mere rhetoric. Let's talk about the elephant in the room. Tribal jurisdiction. When it comes to this topic, the State of Alaska is adversarial, both in perception and practice, looking to the courts to resolve the question in their favor. Just recently, Alaska's Attorney General wrote a lengthy plea to the Tribal Law and Order Commission, asserting that expanding tribal jurisdiction is not "necessary." That is not the State's decision to make. But more importantly, tribal jurisdiction is absolutely necessary to curb the domestic violence epidemic. Instead, the state continually rejects the most effective tool to “Choose Respect.”

As the federal government feverishly works to ward off a looming cash crunch, Alaska needs to work with Tribes creatively to conserve dwindling resources. The models are already there. The proverbial wheel need not be re-invented. Isn't the goal to solve the problems associated with jurisdiction, not perpetuate them? States like Wisconsin, Maine, and Arizona are to be applauded in their efforts to push through out-dated prejudices and fears to create cooperative, problem-solving protocols. In some states, a simple cup of coffee between historic adversaries grew into powerful partnerships. We stand on fertile ground to develop both responsible and effective tools to reduce the domestic violence epidemic in Alaska and enter a new age of mutual understanding and cooperation. Alaska Tribes have demonstrated our age-old practice of sound decision making. Let’s keep our eye on the ball, Alaska. The enemy is domestic violence, not Tribes.

Myron P. Naneng, Sr., a traditional Yup'ik, is the President of the Association of Village Council Presidents, an Alaska Native non-profit with a membership of 56 federally-recognized Tribes on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. AVCP's region covers 59,000 square miles, approximately the size of the state of Oregon. He can be reached at Association of Village Council Presidents, P.O. Box 219, Bethel, AK 99559.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.