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Revisions to Violence Against Women Act offer little help for Alaska

Alex DeMarban
Loren Holmes Illustration

Key groups that have fought a decades-long plague of rape and violence against women in Alaska's more than 200 villages say a federal proposal in the works won't help the state's rural communities stop the abuse, though Lower 48 American Indian tribes are poised to receive such help. 

Alaska Native women have the worst statistics in the country when it comes to sexual assault and violence, according to a letter to the state's Congressional delegation from Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Yet, the U.S. Senate's version reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act falls short of preventing such crimes in Alaska's villages and tribal communities, the letter said. Many of those villages have limited law enforcement or none.

'Not random or an accident'

AFN wants the delegation to "support efforts to empower our villages to deal with violent crime and other chronic problems impacting our villages; and to hold the state of Alaska accountable to protect the civil rights of all Alaskans," said the April 26 letter from Kitka.

The disparities between Alaska's 229 tribes and the nation's 336 tribes show up in the recently passed Senate bill extending the Violence Against Women Act. The recently passed House version also falls short of addressing the crisis in Alaska, Kitka said in letters to Alaska's U.S. Rep. Don Young's office, including one asking him to oppose it.

"We all know that the violence against Alaska Native women is not random or an accident," a May 10 letter to Young said. "There are many gaps in government law enforcement and protections for rural and remote villages in our state, which would never be acceptable in urban Alaska. This needs to change."

The state has made policy choices that have crippled rural Alaska tribal governments from implementing local solutions, Kitka said.

Appalling rates of violence

Nearly six of 10 women in Alaska are likely to suffer sexual violence abuse and violence from somebody close to them within their lifetime. Bush Alaska has produced especially grim numbers for years:

• In a state with some of the nation's highest rates of rape and domestic violence, Alaska Natives represent almost half of Alaska's domestic violence victims and 61 percent of sexual-assault victims, according to reports made to Alaska State Troopers in 2003 and 2004. They make up only 15 percent of the population.

• A 2006 study found that women in the Ahtna region in Southcentral Alaska are up to 12 times more likely to experience physical assault than their U.S. counterparts.

• In a 2006 study of Athabascan women in Interior Alaska, 64 percent said they had been victims of domestic violence. Alaska Natives were the attackers about half of the time.

"No one can argue the population that is hardest hit by family violence is Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Hands down. It's an epidemic," said David Voluck, a tribal judge in Sitka in Southeast Alaska.

Little for Alaska in bills

The Senate bill gives Lower 48 tribal courts new powers to have any abuser on tribal lands arrested for domestic violence, and to prosecute them. They would also be able to issue civil protective orders against any person.

Previously, Lower 48 tribes could prosecute or issue protective orders against Native Americans only. 

But Alaska Natives tribes won't receive any expanded powers. The state maintains that Alaska Native tribes currently have no criminal authority to arrest or prosecute anyone, Native or non-Native.  

The House's version extending the Violence Against Women Act has been blasted by national groups for doing little to help some of the nation's most targeted women, including American Indians. It does not expand powers for any tribe in the state or nation, so it is fairer for Alaska tribes than the Senate version. 

Both versions are headed to a House-Senate conference committee for resolution. The committee has not been named, but members of Alaska's delegation are not expected to sit on it.

Natalie Landreth, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage, said the Senate version treats Alaska tribes like they're less worthy of protection than Lower 48 victims.

Landreth has said she's baffled why Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich did not give Alaska the same opportunity Lower 48 tribes may get to help prevent domestic violence by Native and non-Native perpetrators.

"Why would they not want Alaska tribes to have the ability to detain or order the arrest -- even if it's by the troopers -- of someone who was beating a tribal member?" Landreth said.

"I have two requests for assistance right now for non-Natives that have been assaulting tribal members that live in a tribal community. They know they're untouchable, or they think they are, and they continue to do it."

Alaska's U.S. senators respond

Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and did add some pro-Alaska provisions, told Alaska Dispatch that the bill was not the right place to resolve the complex legal thicket between state and tribal jurisdiction in Alaska.

"Will it be something we'll look to address at a later date in other legislation? I think the table has been set here," Murkowski said.

Begich does not serve on the Indian Affairs Committee, where the bill was originally drafted, said Julie Hasquet, the senator's spokeswoman. But when the bill came to the Senate floor, Begich worked with Murkowski to fix an inadvertent clause that would have actually reduced Alaska tribe's civil powers, Hasquet said. In the end, Alaska Native tribes ended up receiving the status quo, while Lower 48 tribes would enjoy the new authority.

Begich believes the current system that limits Alaska tribes' criminal powers isn't working, particularly in scores of rural communities that have only tribal police or no police at all. But will Begich lobby senators on the conference committee to expand Alaska tribal power?

"We're discussing our options," Hasquet said.

Tribes could help fight crime

The state-tribal tangle exists because courts have ruled that Indian Country does not exist on the state's biggest chunk of Native-owned land -- more than 40 million acres owned by Native corporations. There's only one reservation in the state -- the 130-square-mile Annette Islands Reserve -- in Alaska's Southeastern tip.

Instead, Alaska tribes usually operate in the state's 200-plus villages. In most cases, one tribal government is based in each village, and officials there work with the local city government to provide services.

The lack of reservations in Alaska means tribes here don't have clearly defined boundaries within which to operate, state Attorney General Michael Geraghty told Alaska Dispatch in an email. If the Senate bill applied in Alaska like it would in the Lower 48, Alaska tribes would have criminal jurisdiction for the first time, over both non-Natives and Natives, Geraghty said.  

"The resulting checkerboard pattern of justice systems that would occur in Alaska would not be an effective solution to the state’s domestic violence problems," said Geraghty, and that would further complicate an already complex issue.

Yet in the Senate version, the expansion of Lower 48 tribal power would be concurrent: Tribes would share power with state and federal law-enforcement agencies on domestic violence criminal issues. State and federal law-enforcement would not lose existing power.

The state and the delegation should support a similar, shared jurisdiction in Alaska, said Landreth. Tribes are not interested in jailing an offender long-term. Instead, they want to stop the violence when it's happening, before turning the offender over to the state system. Having that limited prosecuting ability could help stop violent crime in numerous villages that currently lack adequate protection, while also saving the state money. 

"The ideal scenario is they can work together on this," Landreth said. "The state would get additional help and probably additional money because tribes would use their own resources on these issues."

State: Efforts to improve rural justice working

The state has improved its rural crime-fighting force in recent years, largely because the number of state-funded Village Public Safety Officers (VPSO) has grown. Their numbers have nearly doubled to about 100, though they are roughly 20 shy of their peak in the 1980s.

The growth comes in large part because of efforts championed by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, who has made family violence a top priority for his administration. The state intends to expand the VPSO program further, while continuing to boost training for those officers and also tribal police, Geraghty said.

Those improvements are part of Parnell's 10-year initiative to end the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault throughout Alaska.

The state's efforts to increase its law-enforcement muscle in rural Alaska, rather than extending tribal authority to criminal matters, is the proper path to reducing rural Alaska crime, Geraghty said.

"These initiatives should be allowed to work toward a solution to the domestic violence problems in Alaska, rather than creating new jurisdictional layers that will increase public confusion and potentially impair individual constitutional rights," Geraghty's email statement said.

Limited police in villages

But those state efforts aren't enough, Landreth said.

About 140 villages have no VPSO or state trooper, authorities who work together under state law to investigate or prevent crimes. That leaves 50 villages with only tribal or village police, and about 90 with no law enforcement at all, said Landreth.   

If abuse happens, many villages must wait for state troopers to fly in to stop a crime. That can take hours or days, depending on the weather.  

An AFN letter to Rep. Young said, "For too long, we have seen domestic violence and sexual abuse offenders go unpunished because state law enforcement is slow to respond and prosecutions too difficult.

"We urge you to include provisions in the VAWA that will make a real difference in the lives of Alaska Native women in our state," the letter continued.

Young: Status quo better than alternative

The House version also maintains the status quo for Alaska tribes. Unlike the Senate bill, it won't expand tribal powers in the Lower 48 or in Alaska. Both versions include $660 million a year in grants for five years, an amount that is in line with recent years.

Luke Miller, Young's spokesman, said the longtime congressman didn't have a chance to amend the House version because the House Judiciary Committee had a "closed-rule" process. That prevented Young from offering any amendments before the bill passed last week, Miller said.

"I can't speak to if we would have added amendments," said Miller. But at any rate, he added, the opportunity never arose.

Given Young's limited options, he thought that continuing the status quo was better than voting against the bill, Miller said.

Landreth said the status quo, with its horrific rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, especially in rural areas, is unacceptable.

Murkowski: Time is needed

As for the Senate bill, one of two key pro-Alaska clauses added by Murkowski would allow the state's VPSO program to apply for federal Violence Against Women Act grants, such as for increased training in how to respond to domestic violence in villages.

The second Murkowski clause could lead to the extension of the cash-short Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, a 10-member panel created by Congress in 2004 to recommend ways to reduce crime in villages.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would report to Congress, after meeting with state officials, AFN and tribes, to determine whether to continue funding.

The Alaska rural justice panel has recommended a number of steps to improve rural law enforcement, including boosting the presence of village public safety officers and expanding the use of tribal courts in Alaska.

Murkowski said the expansion for Lower 48 tribes would be "precedent-setting." But applying the same language for Alaska would have been difficult, she said.

"I recognize we can, should and must do more when it comes to efforts to provide for the safety and security of Native women. I also recognize that this was something that was going to be a process. It's going to take some more time," Murkowski said.

"I know that's not satisfactory for those who want to have expanded jurisdiction, but it's something we weren't prepared to make -- that very substantive jurisdictional change within the legislation," Alaska's senior senator added.

(Clarification: This article originally said, "In a state with some of the nation's highest rates of rape and domestic violence, Alaska Natives represent almost half of Alaska's domestic violence victims and 61 percent of sexual-assault victims." Language has been added to show that those figures are based on reports made to Alaska State Troopers in 2003 and 2004.) 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com