Members of an Alaska House committee said Tuesday they would act on a federal report that singled out the state for failing to protect its rural residents against violent crime, sexual assaults and suicides, though they weren't yet sure what they could do.
The U.S. Indian Law & Order Commission wrote the report and its chairman, Troy Eid, had a few suggestions. For one, he said, the state could stop suing its own people to forestall greater tribal autonomy.
"It's in every Alaskan's interest ... to not have an environment where you spend more money litigating against your Natives than all the other states in the United States combined -- and I hope you know that," said Eid, the former U.S. Attorney for Colorado and a Republican appointee to the commission. "There's got to be a cheaper way and an easier way, and I think it starts with that mutual respect."
Eid testified by telephone to the House Community & Regional Affairs Committee in Juneau about his nine-member bipartisan panel and of the chapter on Alaska in its final report -- the only state so singled out. Eid spoke from Fairbanks, where he was the keynote speaker at the annual convention of the Tanana Chiefs Conference. The report, ordered by Congress in 2010, was published in November.
Eid urged the Legislature to play a leading role in getting the state to recognize tribal authority at the village level, even if it means drawing local boundary lines to create jurisdictions for tribal police and judges, much as the state draws boundaries for borough, cities and towns. He said it was time to throw out Alaska's current model as a failure: top-down law enforcement from big cities and regional hubs from where response time can be abysmal and where officers are stretched thin.
"All nine of us -- Republicans and Democrats, Native and Non-Native, men and women -- we all think Alaska is on the wrong track. You cannot continue to have this centralized state system and support it in the manner in which it's been supported and expect anything other than disproportionally high rates of violent crime and a very a wasteful, wasteful system, that frankly, as taxpayers, is just not acceptable," Eid said.
That system has produced one of the highest suicide rates in North America and so much family violence that one in four Alaska Native juveniles suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. "That is the same rate as returning combat vets from Afghanistan," Eid said.
Holly Handler, an Alaska Legal Services Corp. attorney from Juneau representing the Alaska Federation of Natives, told the committee that the report demanded action.
"One of the more dismal observations that the commission made in Alaska was seeing how much work has been done by the state Legislature, by other state groups, by tribal groups, by commissions both federal and within the state, and seeing that those reports from the '80s, from the '90s from the 2000s, to the 2012 Rural Justice Report, how the work has been done but there hasn't been the follow-through," she said.
Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, wondered how the committee could act.
"What is the intent of the co-chairs in going forward with this report?" he asked Reps. Ben Nageak, D-Bethel, and Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage.
"I have no idea, to tell you the truth, for myself, because we wanted an opportunity to have this brought into the public through this committee," Nageak said. "It's up to discussion to what we can do. We can make recommendations, I'm sure, but obviously I don't know at this time."
LeDoux said they could have another discussion "several weeks from now."
Herron said he wanted to hear directly from Attorney General Michael Geraghty about the report. Geraghty was invited to testify Tuesday, but told the committee last week he couldn't make it because of a long-planned trip. He referred the request to Gov. Sean Parnell's senior rural affairs advisor, John Moller, and legislative director Heather Brakes.
But Moller was also at the Tanana Chiefs convention. Brakes didn't return two messages.
Herron said he saw no one from the administration that he recognized in the hearing room and suggested Geraghty be invited again.
"If we just forget about this report, it won't serve the justice that we need," Herron said. "I want on the record specifically what the attorney general is doing to get to recognition of sovereignty in this state."
Geraghty has said that the state needs to do more to make rural villages safer.
Eid praised a bill moving through the Legislature and supported by the administration that would arm village public safety officers, but said much more was needed.
Eid said it isn't necessary to resolve long-running disputes between state government and tribal authorities over control of land -- "Indian Country" -- to grant criminal jurisdiction to tribal police and courts.
"I would say emphatically the state does not currently recognize Alaska Native nations on a government-to-government basis. That needs to happen today," Eid said. "Every other state in the country does it for federally recognized Native nations, and every president since Richard Nixon. So the idea that it's somehow debatable or optional, that's the sign of an ancient era."
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER