Violence Against Women Act details trouble Alaska Natives

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON -- Alaska Natives are lining up in opposition to Lower 48 tribes over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Lower 48 tribes are pushing the bill hard because it gives tribal courts jurisdiction on reservations to prosecute non-Indians who attack women. But in Alaska, where few Natives live on a reservation, tribes say it would actually take away their power to intervene in domestic violence.

The Alaska Federation of Natives held an emergency meeting Monday on the issue and sent a letter to Alaska's Congressional delegation saying the bill "cripples the ability of Alaska tribes to intervene even in an emergency."

"It shocks the conscience that an entire state -- and home to 45 percent of the tribes in the United States -- would be exempt from an entire bill ... particularly appalling in light of statistics showing that Alaska Natives are vastly overrepresented among the victims of domestic violence," said the letter from AFN to the delegation.

Alaska Native tribes say that, as written, the bill would diminish the ability of Alaska tribes to issue civil protective orders, by specifically exempting Alaska groups, even as the authority of Lower

48 tribes on reservations would be expanded.

Federal law allows Alaska tribal courts and councils to slap restraining ord ers on people who commit domestic violence, demanding they stay away from victims -- or in extreme cases banishing them from the village. AFN says the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which is expected for a vote in the U.S. Senate this week, would take away that power by removing the requirement that such orders be enforced.

The Central Council Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska passed a resolution condemning the bill's language.

"We believe the way Congress is addressing the law is a challenge to the sovereignty to our tribe and all tribes in Alaska," said Bob Loescher, a member of the Tlingit and Haida judiciary committee.

Congressional staff suggested the apparent removal of authority for Alaska tribes came because of the fact the state generally lacks reservations, raising issues of jurisdiction that don't exist in the Lower 48. Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich said Tuesday they would introduce amendments to try and allow Alaska tribes to continue having the protective orders respected. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell is also in favor.

But regardless of how that turns out, Alaska tribes will almost surely be excluded from the expanded law enforcement powers that the bill grants to Lower 48 tribes. The measure would allow tribes to criminally prosecute non-Indians if they commit a domestic violence or sexual assault crime on a reservation against an Indian. It is a huge issue for Lower 48 tribes who have been lobbying hard for Congress to pass the bill.

Parnell doesn't support such an expansion in Alaska, said Kip Knudson, who leads Parnell's Washington D.C. office. Knudson said Parnell would rather see more village public safety officers.

"He's not convinced that a change in federal law or a change in jurisdiction is the best tool at this point," Knudson said.

There's also the issue that Alaska has no federally designated reservations except Metlakatla in Southeast, with a population of 1,419. The question of what constitutes "Indian Country" under tribal jurisdiction in Alaska is controversial. A federal appeals court in 1996 recognized some Native corporation land in Alaska as Indian Country but the decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later. Congress is reluctant to wade into the thorny issue of where tribes should have jurisdiction in Alaska.

Reach Sean Cockerham at or follow him on twitter @seancockerham

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