Harley Titus, Chris Charlie and Claude Koyukuk head out from the Interior village of Minto to check their trap lines. Minto no longer produces misdemeanor cases for state court because offenders now appear before the Minto tribal court. The court handles adoptions and domestic matters, but also enforces tribal laws against such offenses as bootlegging and disorderly conduct. (Anchorage Daily News photo by Bob Hallinen)
By Tom Kizzia and Sheila Toomey
Daily News reporters
A major focus of tribal courts in Alaska villages has been enforcement of laws against importation and consumption of alcohol. Tribal court administrators say community-service sentences have proven to be a greater deterrent than sending offenders to state jails.
Local enforcement of alcohol laws was one of the key ''Native solutions to Native problems'' promoted by the federal-state Alaska Natives Commission in 1994. The continuing epidemic of alcohol-induced crime and suicide is evidence, the study said, that state and federal programs have failed rural Native culture. The congressionally funded panel concluded the solution is to give Native communities power to do something about the problems themselves.
''If significant improvements are to be made with respect to overall Alaska Native well-being, the Native community must take 'ownership' of the problems and assume responsibility for their solutions,'' the commission said as it called for full recognition of Alaska tribes and development of functional tribal courts.
''Any future attempts to regulate alcohol importation and use in Alaska Native villages ... must be premised on the fundamental belief that Alaska Natives can and should have ultimate and unquestioned control,'' the report said.
At a meeting of tribal activists in Anchorage in April, the most commonly cited reason for wanting greater sovereignty was to move away from plea bargaining in distant courthouses and fight local social problems with more culturally appropriate tools.
Recognition of Indian country would mean an additional tool: under federal law, a village in Indian country is automatically dry, unless the tribe votes to allow alcohol. Bootleggers would be subject to tribal prosecution. Serious offenses would presumably be subject to FBI investigation, though new resources would have to be committed to such an effort, said U.S. Attorney Bob Bundy.
Legislators concerned about the eclipse of state institutions by tribal courts say alcohol problems should be dealt with under the Alaska Constitution.
''Bootlegging? Our books are full of criminal laws,'' said Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. ''We've got lots of penalties for bootleggers and if they want more penalties, I'm willing to entertain them.''
In fact, earlier this year the Legislature passed a new law making bootleggers personally liable for injuries, death or property damage caused by illegal importation of booze. The law was sponsored by Rep. Ivan Ivan, D-Akiak.
Tribal advocates respond that state funding for the criminal justice system -- prosecutors, troopers, public defenders, magistrates and village public safety officers -- has not kept up with a rapidly growing rural population facing serious problems.
Has the spread of tribal courts in the past decade made a difference?
Susan Soule, rural coordinator for the state Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, said some villages -- particularly those with a greater sense of traditional society -- have a greater feeling of power over the problem.
''In the villages I know that are really trying, in many of them they're making an obvious difference,'' Soule said. ''It used to be that drinking was open and people accepted drunkenness. More and more now, it's the drinkers who are hiding behind closed doors.''
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