WASHINGTON -- Across the nation, Indian tribes cheered when President Barack Obama signed a new Violence Against Women Act last week, expanding the power of tribal courts to try non-Indians for crimes of domestic violence committed on reservations.
But there was one big exception: It did not apply to most Alaska tribes, prompting complaints from many tribal officials.
Faced with a torrent of criticism that Congress had not done enough to protect Native women, Republican Lisa Murkowski, the state's senior senator, says she is frustrated.
She broke ranks with her party to support the new prosecutorial powers, but she said they can't be used by most tribes in her state for one simple reason: The 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska have only one reservation, Metlakatla, in the southeast part of the state.
And, she said, Congress only intended to grant the power to indigenous Americans who live in "Indian country," or on reservation land.
"These provisions apply to Indian country -- and nothing other than Indian country. . . . I don't think it is clear to folks back home," Murkowski said in an interview.
The question of what makes up "Indian country" in Alaska has long been in dispute. While a federal appeals court in 1996 recognized some Alaska Native Corporation land as Indian country, the decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later.
As a result, Murkowski said, Alaskan tribes oftentimes are subject to a different set of rules.
"In Alaska, because of our laws and the interpretation by the Supreme Court, it is different," she said. "And we might not like that and we may all need to be working to address that, but that is our reality right now."
But many tribal officials say that they're disappointed in Murkowski and that she didn't do enough to make sure Alaska's tribes could take advantage of the new law.
"I think that they could have done more," Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, a group that represents 56 tribes in western Alaska, said in an interview. "It seems like they're always using their standard operating language of depriving tribes in Alaska, even though they may not have reservations, of their ability to deal with their local and village issues."
After Congress passed the law, Naneng issued a statement saying that while tribes in the Lower 48 states are celebrating, "our women are crying out for protection."
What the change means, according to Murkowski's office, is that only non-Indians accused of domestic violence specifically on the Metlakatla reservation can be tried in tribal court. Other non-Indians committing crimes against tribal members in Alaska can be tried in regular courts, as they always have been.
Murkowski, who's been taking heat over the issue for the past week, said that the change has caused "a level of confusion" in Alaska.
"I am frustrated, but here's what I will tell you: This is highly, highly emotional for so many people in Alaska, not just Native women, because far too many of us know too many who have been victims of domestic violence, whose family members, whose sisters, whose neighbors are victims," she said. "These are raw emotions because it's not just statistics for us in Alaska; this is very real."
Many tribes are upset that Murkowski inserted a "special rule for the state of Alaska" into the final bill. Murkowski said it was an attempt to clarify and make sure that Metlakatla was covered, since Alaskan tribes are oftentimes treated differently than others. But critics say that she did nothing to help other Native women and that her amendment only served to make sure that most Alaska tribes could not take advantage of the new power.
"The language does not say, 'I want to make sure Metlakatla is included,' it says 'only Metlakatla' -- that's not language to make sure someone is included," Natalie Landreth, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage, said in an interview.
She said that Murkowski "didn't have to do anything" and that her amendment was unnecessary because Metlakatla clearly qualified under the new law.
"Not only does it muddy things up, but it creates a real problem for people trying to get their protective orders enforced and it creates a significant hole allowing people who are non-Native to commit domestic violence and the tribe can't do anything about it," Landreth said.
In a statement after the vote, Landreth said that Alaska's tribes "are different and lesser than other tribes" under the new law.
Murkowski said there "was some disagreement amongst the legal scholars" as to whether Alaska's sole reservation would be treated equally and whether her amendment was needed: "We just decided to err on the side of caution."
Murkowski said all Alaskans need to work to reduce domestic violence and to stop fighting over jurisdictional issues. She said it will be important to make sure there are enough shelters for women, rape kits in villages and that all 911 calls are answered and that help is available when those calls are made.
"It is a bad system that is made even worse because we simply don't have adequate law enforcement out in far too many parts of our state," Murkowski said.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich backed the Violence Against Women Act and said it was important to pass it, but he said he shares the frustration that most Alaskan tribes aren't covered by the language allowing non-Natives to be tried in tribal courts.
"We need to enhance it," Begich said in an interview.
Toward that end, Begich said that as soon as next week he will reintroduce his Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act. It would create pilot programs in an attempt to strengthen the state's tribal court systems and give more aid to tribes to improve public safety and reduce domestic violence, child abuse and drug and alcohol abuse.
"There's a gap for Alaska," Begich said. "We're moving forward because it's very frustrating."
By ROB HOTAKAINEN