What now for panel's ideas to improve law and order in rural Alaska?

Richard Mauer
Erik Hill

Last week, when three members of the U.S. Indian Law & Order Commission were in Anchorage to present their critical report on public safety in Alaska's villages, they said the last thing they wanted was to see their work sitting on a shelf with others like it, gathering dust.

But where do they go from here?

After he finished his meetings with Alaska officials Thursday and before he flew back home to Colorado, the panel's chairman, Troy Eid, met with a reporter in a law office downtown and outlined what he hoped would be the panel's legacy.

"The state should recognize these federally recognized nations on a government-to-government basis," Eid said of Alaska's 229 tribes, many of them village councils in communities scattered throughout Alaska. "The governor could do that today."

That's one way to quickly bring local control to communities that are far from Alaska State Troopers and courts and that may have different ideas about punishment and rehabilitation than the state, he said. He made that suggestion to Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty when the two met Wednesday. Eid offered to help him draft the executive order that Gov. Sean Parnell could issue on tribal recognition.

But while Geraghty said the administration agrees that the state needs to do more to reduce the related epidemics of domestic violence and sexual assault, it opposes expanding tribal sovereignty as a means.

"From my perspective, the message was delivered," Geraghty said of the Indian Law & Order Commission, which singled out Alaska's failures in the Bush as a national disgrace, devoting an entire chapter of its report just to the state.

"I can quibble about the means with which it was delivered and the nuances, but the fundamental message was delivered," Geraghty said. "I accept that challenge. We need to do more, and I think there's much to be gained trying to work with these small communities and institutions like tribal courts to do what we all want to do."

Geraghty once again referenced the Parnell administration's still-secret plan to grant new criminal jurisdiction to tribal courts over minor crimes -- if the defendant is willing to waive his or her right to be tried in state court, and if the punishment can be meted out as a civil matter, without the threat of jail. Geraghty said he's in negotiations on his proposal with the Tanana Chiefs Council in Fairbanks, which represents tribal courts in 42 Interior villages, and said he didn't want to disclose details of the plan until it was final.

"I don't want to get it out there and make this mass production of it and have people start weighing in with comments or sending emails and expressing a point of view," Geraghty said.

But isn't that the way a democracy works? he was asked.

"Not in my view," he said. "We've given it to the group we want to talk to and at some point, I know there's going to be substantial changes to it. Putting a first draft (in public) when you know there's going to be substantial changes to it, it defeats the purpose -- it's confusing."

Eid said he too asked Geraghty for the document, but was refused.

"To circulate an agreement with some tribes and not to share it with others and then not to talk about it, it breeds conspiracy theories -- it's not a constructive way to solve the problems," Eid said.

The commission had recommendations for Congress related to Alaska too. It's urging Congress to overturn the landmark Venetie decision of 1998, when the Supreme Court ruled that Native corporation lands deeded to village or tribal councils could not become "Indian country." In federal law, Indian country is the domain not of states but of tribes and the federal government.

In that case, the Athabascan villages of Venetie and Arctic Village asserted tribal authority over the 1.8 million acres deeded to their village corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The Supreme Court ruled that the corporation land, even when deeded to the villages, was no different than any other property and could not become Indian country.

That decision was applauded by some in Alaska, including then-Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, who took the case to the court, and Republican leaders of the Legislature. But tribal advocates were devastated.

Because Congress establishes the relationships between Native Americans and the government, it can overturn the decision with legislation, Eid said. Tribal sovereignty -- the idea that Natives are self-governing -- is nearly worthless without a substantial amount of Indian country -- the land over which sovereignty is asserted, he said.

About 4 to 6 million acres of Indian country may currently exist in Alaska, he said. Aside from the Alaska's sole reservation at Metlakatla, they include the 160-acre or so Native allotments set aside for families and federal town sites designated decades ago for villages in some parts of the state. Courts have never declared those lands not to be Indian country, he said, but those parcels are generally too small and scattered to be effective.

Geraghty said the state would oppose any effort to expand Indian country.

"We'd end up with a patchwork quilt of 200 separate reservations around the state," he said, each with its own set of laws.

Eid said that Congress should also remove the Alaska exception in the Violence Against Women Act, a law that gives new authority to tribal courts to take action against domestic violence -- except in Alaska. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, authored the Alaska exception earlier this year.

Eid said he was puzzled by Murkowski's action.

"Did that really help her?" he asked. "I've been all over the United States since the amendments came down. I do not think that her reputation has been enhanced by the fact that she is known as someone who co-sponsored a bill that was good enough for every U.S. citizen except those who happened to live in Alaska."

Murkowski's spokesman Matt Felling said she was traveling and unavailable for an interview, though she issued a written statement saying she was evaluating the commission report.

"It's important we continue this elevated dialogue on public safety in our state for our people and our future. Whether or not the recommendations fit for Alaska is a conversation our tribes, Native institutions and our State must have," she said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said in an interview Friday that the latest version of his Safe Families and Villages Act would remove the Alaska exception, and that Murkowski has signed on as a sponsor. (Felling confirmed both were true.) Begich said he expects a hearing on the bill early next year in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, where he and Murkowski are members. He also wants to hold hearings, perhaps including field hearings in Alaska, on the Law & Order Commission report.

"The report just verifies what we've been saying for three years: that the system that the state's operating under for criminal justice for Alaska Native communities and rural communities is not working," Begich said.

"It's not a good report card from a state perspective."

Begich said a bill overturning the Venetie decision would have a tough time passing, but that the measures in his bill to increase village self-determination are politically more palatable.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

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