Compass: 'Choose Respect' fails to protect Native women

It's a method, marches. Historically marches are held to protest (civil rights), to get from one point to another (relocation) and to parade power (military). Generally, the word indicates walking lock-step whether literally or metaphorically. Choose Respect marches for change.

But what are we trying to change, a social behavior? The march says Alaska is a violent place and we need to change it. How, and by what entity? Individual Alaskans are asked to make this change by choosing respect when engaging with one another. The march, at best, "brings awareness" one day a year (and would with or without the governor). But the goal is to change violence in a society, which is nebulous in comparison to say, pushing for a civil rights bill or to stop a state action.

The Choose Respect anti-violence programs are great things for schools, but government needs to take tangible actions rather than just mirror sentiments to actually curb violence against women.

There is one area where Alaska could make substantive change, but the governor would have to start by changing his attitude in regard to violence against Native women.

The State of Alaska has certain obligations to provide for the protections of its citizens. The state chose to be in charge of that obligation over tribes when it opted to follow a federal mandate affecting six states -- Public Law-280. This means, in simple terms, that the state accepted an unfunded federal mandate to handle crimes occurring within tribes.

Statehood didn't change the history of law and agreements that developed between the federal government and the tribes, no matter the state's attitude. The State of Alaska chose to exercise jurisdiction through PL-280 -- with or without tribal consent. Tribes are still tribes, and a long legislative history recognizes tribes, and even PL-280 intended for states to work with tribes. Sadly, state leadership appears continually gun-shy to acknowledge tribes and their inherent powers to self-govern and this inhibits the ability for tribes to help protect their own tribal members.

So what does this mean in protecting the most abused population in the nation - Alaska Native women? It means the state would rather ignore them than acknowledge tribal self-government and reliance on tribal courts (which would be more efficient and cost effective) to help enforce protective orders. It means the state prefers paternalism over an effective state-tribal relationship as in some other states. The catch is the state government wants control and responsibility over tribal safety -- they just don't want to pay for it.

View the State of Alaska's Choose Respect website and you may find lists of options for federal, private and faith-based resources and programs. Interestingly, there is no mention of tribes or of working with tribes. The governor is relying on outside resources to help address Alaskan violence problems (and not even specifically rape). His sexual assault solutions include more Village Public Safety Officers and funding certain faith-based women programs and shelters. Some other shelters, known to help the most destitute, have had to close their doors for lack of funding.

Furthermore, the Governor's Office apparently met with Sen. Lisa Murkowski before the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) vote. Sen. Murkowski thereafter was compelled to reinforce Metlakatla's (a reservation) tribal authority under VAWA to investigate cases, but not for other Alaskan tribes. This should have extended to all the tribes. It's proven that abuses against Native women occur by both Native and non-Native men, making this extension of authority all the more important, especially since many Native women are married to non-Native men. Now the powers that be have once again failed Native women.

The governor demonstrates a condescending paternalism and apparent unwillingness to at least encourage concurrent jurisdiction and improve state-tribal relations. The state has failed to protect Native women. Tribes can help with solutions if the state actually works with them.

Quite frankly it is disingenuous, and dangerous for women, to deny real remedies while parading around in lock-step for show and political capital.


Diane Benson is a writer and professor of Native studies at the University of Alaska, and is a recent recipient of the national Bonnie Heavy-Runner Advocacy Award in recognition of outstanding service to victims of crime in Indian country.