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Gov. Walker can help protect rural Alaskans by dropping tribal land trust suit

Alaska Native villages endure some of the highest reported violent crime rates in the country, including domestic violence rates up to 12 times the U.S. average. This can be attributed to several factors, largely stemming from the nature of historic traumas caused by multiple waves of colonial efforts, that unfortunately, reverberate inter-generationally across Alaska Native communities. Alaska Native people and communities are working hard to change this and need genuine, respectful state partnership to continue to advance this critical work. To that end, there are a few important policy opportunities Gov. Bill Walker's administration can take advantage of.

One of those opportunities was solidified last December when Congress extended the Violence Against Women Act amendments to Alaska. With this inclusion Alaska tribes and tribal courts were finally positioned to protect public safety by being able to enforce their own laws against domestic violence perpetrated by Natives and non-Natives alike -- a legal development that opens the door for making rural and remote Alaska safer and more just for everyone.

The other vital opportunity is for the governor to take immediate action to honor his commitment to Alaska's tribes -- to work with them, instead of against them -- by ending the state's opposition to taking land-into-trust for Alaska's tribes. In order to bring the full power of the VAWA amendments into reality in Alaska, the tribes need the ability to exert jurisdiction over their lands. To do so requires the governor to abandon the prior administration's costly legal appeal of the U.S. Department of Interior's regulation on how Alaska's tribes can have land taken into trust. As it now stands, Alaska's 229 federally recognized tribes remain virtually trapped with their hands tied behind their backs, unable to protect their most vulnerable citizens and community members because of the lack of territorial jurisdiction, as defined under the federal law construct, needed to operate essential services of self-government, such as public safety and economic development.

The continuation of the state of Alaska's response to the public safety vacuum in rural and remote Alaska is literally a matter of life and death, and contradictory to an equitable society -- endangering the lives of Alaska Native and rural people at a significant moral and financial cost, at a time when the state can ill afford it. State officials say they want to reduce violence, suicide, alcohol/drug abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska, including in our rural and remote communities, yet they do not provide adequate services or use the tools, potential partnerships and knowledge of the tribes to help address these issues through any and all means available.

Instead, we see state officials doing everything in their power at the top level of the state to actually fight the one thing that would position tribes to do something about these issues, by holding up the land-into-trust process in Alaska. Worse, as a result of this contradiction, state officials seem to expect: 1) Tribal communities to live without the same basic protections other Alaskans have, perpetuating political and racial inequality, 2) Tribes to provide certain governmental services on their own with little funding and no tax base, something the state cannot even do, or 3) The state prevents and actively works against tribes from helping themselves and assumes the responsibility for doing so with inadequate resources and a colonial mentality of ruling from afar. The fact is, the people in the villages and tribes are the ones with the most at stake in these communities, who are often doing more than humanly possible with little to no support to triage ineffective systems of public safety. That just won't do anymore.

Alaska's 229 tribes are sovereign, recognized as such under federal law -- but there is not a single village shelter for children, and only one for women in all of rural Alaska, where domestic violence victims can be protected until Alaska Troopers arrive. Perpetrators walk the village streets and boardwalks where victims live and often do so with impunity. At least 75 Alaska Native villages have no law enforcement coverage of any kind, according to a 2013 report by the Indian Law and Order Commission, an independent Congressional advisory board that declared Alaska's public safety crisis to be a national problem.

The ILOC report concluded that in Lower 48 states, when tribal governments are permitted to exercise their jurisdiction to govern and protect people and property within their tribal lands, public safety improves for Indians and non-Indians alike. The secretary of the Interior's ability to take lands into federal trust for the benefit of tribes in the Lower 48 has been a key factor in building their capacity for effective self-government. When states and tribal governments work together in this way they not only help one another, they build governmental capacity. Through intergovernmental agreements they utilize the strength of the people to govern themselves and establish the continuity of tribal homelands while creating the ability for both sovereigns to be more accountable to each other and their respective citizens.

The Interior's land-into-trust regulations, which had excluded Alaska tribes for decades, changed in 2013 when a federal court in Washington, D.C., struck down the so-called "Alaska exception" on the grounds that it blatantly discriminated against Alaska Native tribes. What this should have signaled for the state was a golden opportunity to get it right -- to work in respectful collaboration with Alaska tribes to create a safer, healthier, more prosperous Alaska for all.

However, rather than allowing for the Interior Department's remedy to stand, the state moved to block the department's new land-into-trust rule in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Akiachak Native Community, et al v. Department of Interior. Continuing with this costly and complicated federal appeal can only prolong rural Alaska's public safety crisis at precisely the wrong time, when tribes are finally able to enforce laws against domestic violence in their own territories and trust lands.

By continuing to oppose Interior's land-into-trust rule, the Walker administration risks perpetuating a discriminatory policy that prevents Alaska Native tribes from helping themselves and protecting all people living and working in these communities from domestic violence – especially children and women who are disproportionately victimized across Alaska.

Instead of using dwindling state funds, federal courts and taxpayer resources to litigate against fellow Alaskans, the governor could turn the tide on public safety issues in Alaska by ending the state's Akiachak appeal. This would be an act of protection for all Alaskans and display the governor's genuine respect for the government-to-government relationship with Alaska's tribes, which he is already working on and had identified as the No. 1 priority by the governor's transition team's intergovernmental relations committee. The Interior's land-into-trust rule also has the potential to strengthen economic development in rural Alaska, improve governmental services at the village level, and help enable the effective implementation of the VAWA amendments as Congress, and Alaska's congressional delegation, intended.

Gov. Walker, Alaska's rural public safety system is broken. The state has the opportunity to change this paradigm by defining a new way forward for the state in partnership with tribes. All that is required is that you seize the opportunity now presented by withdrawing the state's protest against the Interior Department's land-into-trust rule. To respect and create the ability for Alaska Native tribes to bring perpetrators of domestic violence to justice, and work cooperatively at the state level to continue to build capacity for self-governance, is a proven crime-fighting and prevention strategy. The time for new solutions in Alaska has come. Certainly doing the same thing to address these long-standing challenges of providing public safety in remote, rural Alaska will not yield a different result. It is time for the governor to reassess the state's position, drop the appeal, and work with tribes. Now that would be a game-changer.

Liz Medicine Crow is Tlingit and Haida from the village of Kake, and president/CEO of First Alaskans Institute. She served as the chair of the intergovernmental relations committee on the governor's transition team.

Troy A. Eid, a former U.S. Attorney for Colorado under President George W. Bush, chaired the Indian Law and Order Commission and practices law in Denver.

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, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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