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Peace in the home and the tribal first response to violence

OPINION: Tribal courts bring local knowledge and trust, plus cultural sensitivity and expertise to the urgent task of helping end Alaska's violence epidemic. Cooperation between the State of Alaska’s judicial system and its sister sovereign tribal courts will increase opportunities for swift, effective and fair justice all across Alaska. Aaron Jansen illustration

Peace in the home is among the most exalted of all blessings. Tradition teaches that our homes are Holy Temples in microcosm; our dinner table a Holy Altar, our bedrooms the Holy of Holies. Real peace is a bear, in that it must be a complete blessing. So long is there is one corner of our world or our lives where war rages, peace eludes us all. I come to speak today of addressing a war that presently exists in our home -- Alaska.

Before I speak further, the Elders patiently taught me to thank the Alaska Native people for allowing me to sojourn as a visitor on their lands. It is also necessary for me to apologize at the outset, as the matters of which we speak are deeply sensitive. Please forgive me if anything I say may be offensive, as that is truly not my intention.

Legal Scholar Felix Cohen likened the welfare of our indigenous peoples to the miner’s canary, of a sensitivity that marks the shifts from fresh air to poison gas in our Nation’s atmosphere. It is revealed before all that the songs of the Alaska Native people are increasingly muted with distress. I come not to present the horrifying demographics facing Alaska Native children and their families. There are others who are more qualified to discuss statistics (some sources provided below); besides our humanity can get lost in the shock of the numbers.

What I find more palpable is that our nascent field of neuroscience provides chilling evidence that exposure to violence, through any of one of a child’s senses, fundamentally alters brain development, leaving lifelong impacts on brain structure, and necessarily, behavior. Recent developments in the field of epigenetics indicate that moments of primacy during life can lead trace markers on our DNA’s genetic material; that indeed our most powerful life experiences can become part of the genetic heritage handed down to our children. In this way we can further understand that inter-generational trauma and grief are not only environmental and behavioral phenomena, but also part of our neurological and genetic heritage.

While the ‘news’ regarding the implications of violence and trauma can add to our feelings of despair, they also provide us opportunities for optimism, because the flip-side of these findings must also hold true. While moments of violence and trauma can leave lifelong if not generational impacts, so too can acts of love and joy.

Each moment provides the co-equal opportunity to mutate our brains and genetic heritage toward the good.

To that end, Alaska Native tribal governments seek to provide their people "first response" when families come under distress. Tribal courts and circles can provide locally grown solutions to heal not only the presenting situation, but also the cultural and historical trauma that lies at the root of much of the behaviors tearing at the fabric of many Alaska Native families.

I’ve had the privilege of watching tribes carry out "Safe Start" initiatives -- accompanying any police call of domestic violence when children were present; providing early trauma assessment and support. In addition, these tribes seek to provide wrap-around services for their families with family safety courts, child welfare supports, child support, early youth restoration/diversion, and domestic violence protection orders when needed. Young people and families have access to community peace-making circles, elders panels, or more traditional court depending on the situation.

As noted by our own Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe, tribal courts’ first response bring not only local knowledge, cultural sensitivity and expertise to the table, but also have a high level of local trust. Cooperation between the State of Alaska’s judicial system and its sister sovereign tribal courts enhances the opportunity for early intervention and effective delivery of justice to each village that is timely, effective, and fair.

Despite some recent movement toward partnership and respect, distressed children don’t have time to wait for us grown-ups to get our act together. The time is now for us to remove barriers to further success and to incentivize and promote the best practices toward healing our families. The efficacy of tribal court first response remains burdened by the State of Alaska’s apparently never-ending cycle of sovereignty litigation; and its continued political lobbying efforts producing unconscionable “Alaska Exceptions” to national remedial legislation like the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization of 2013. The numbers on our families are bad enough to know that tinkering with already ineffective approaches is a waste of precious time.

The Alaska Natives’ Drum and Song is a call to move toward fresh air, a call to act with true respect and partnership with tribal government first responders. If only we could spend half the concentration it takes to oppose change, to instead explore government-to-government agreements; inter-departmental protocols, cross-deputization for safety and cross-pollination for justice.

Lastly, for the love of G-d, it is incumbent on all Alaskans to really choose respect and immediately call upon our lawmakers to repeal Section 910 of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, as this specific Alaska exception singles out Alaska Native women and families for disparate, unequal, and inferior protection of the law; an illogical result for the most vulnerable and distressed population in the entire United States.

Beyond the court rooms, halls of Congress, or the suits in Juneau, the buck must stop on our laps. To dig deep past the crud, and reclaim our families, in the time-honored tradition of blue tarps and duct tape if need be. The tribes I serve provide positive Indian parenting, healthy relationships, and fatherhood initiatives, support in the constant fight for sobriety, reclamation of traditional foods and spirit, and transformation of violence through cultural salve. And I think, how can it be that I don’t take more advantage of what is right next door in order to be the best father possible?

The paradigm shift starts now with each one of us; one by one we can transform Alaska into a world leader demonstrating how great cultures can meet and mutually enrich each other, bringing the great words to fruition that there will be peace in every home, and “nation will not raise sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Judge David Voluck sits on the benches of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, and Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government. He is an adjunct professor of Indian law at Lewis & Clark College, and co-authored with David S. Case, “Alaska Natives & American Laws, 3rd ed."

Author's note: For people interested in learning more about safety and justice in Alaska Native communities, please see Indian Law Order & Order Commission Report to Congress and U.S. President: Roadmap to a Safer Native America; Chapter 2 “The Time for Reforming Justice for Alaska Natives: The Time is Now.”  ;U.S. Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian / Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence: Alaska Hearings June 12, 2014. “Joint Statement on Eliminating Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls.” Alaska Natives Commission final report, 1994. Alaska Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment: Final Report to the Governor (1999).

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.