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It’s time to talk about the future of rural Alaska

  • Author: Donald Craig Mitchell
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 8, 2019
  • Published June 7, 2019

In blue, U.S. Attorney General William Barr walks the Napaskiak boardwalk with tribal administrator Sharon Williams, right, and others on Friday, May 31, 2019. Barr visited Bethel and Napaskiak to learn about law enforcement and public safety challenges in the region. (Marc Lester / ADN)

At the instigation of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently met in Anchorage with Native leaders from the Alaska Federation of Natives and a number of Native regional associations and corporations to discuss the lack of law enforcement in the 206 communities in Alaska that have been designated as “Native villages” for the purposes of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. After describing how the villages in their regions are riven with alcohol and drug abuse and violence, the participants told the attorney general that more “tribal sovereignty” and more federal dollars to pay for more law enforcement was the way the situation, which they described as a “crisis,” can be improved.

And so once again, as it has for 30 years, the wheel continued to turn.

In 1988, the Anchorage Daily News published “People in Peril,” a series of articles that documented the carnage alcohol abuse was inflicting in Native villages and for which the paper would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In response, AFN directed me to write “A Call for Action,” a report that summarized available health, social and economic data that collectively documented “a social, cultural and economic crisis in Native villages.” In 1989, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the “A Call for Action” report, at which Janie Leask, the president of AFN, told the committee that “the analysis in the report documents an alarmingly high rate of self-destructive behavior and demonstrates that the major victims of this behavior — which are Native infants, children, and young adults — are increasing in number.”

Janie also expressed her view regarding the cause of the dysfunction. She told the committee that “Most Alaska Natives live in communities in which the local economies cannot provide a life-sustaining standard of living without substantial on-going public subsidies. And public policies intended to assist Native individuals, families, and communities have created and perpetuated dependence rather than self-sufficiency.”

What action did AFN recommend that Congress take to reduce that dependence and the social dysfunction AFN’s president said it was causing? Create a commission that would — guess what? Write another report.

Congress accepted that recommendation, and in 1990, created a 14-member Federal-State Commission on Policies and Programs Affecting Alaska Natives, authorizing $700,000 to finance its activities. The commission hired a staff, held hearings, and in 1994 issued a multi-volume report that contained a long list of recommendations.

A quarter of a century later, what has been the result? According to the Native leaders who met with Attorney General Barr, alcohol and drug abuse, child sexual abuse, domestic violence and other Native-on-Native violence are as ubiquitous, and maybe even more ubiquitous, in many Native villages today than they were when I wrote the “A Call for Action” report.

Now, the new response to the human tragedy in Native villages that has continued unabated for 30 years that the Native leaders who met with the attorney general recommended to him is for Congress to appropriate however many more millions of federal dollars as would be needed to pay to station trained law enforcement officers in every village.

After the Anchorage meeting, Attorney General Barr flew to Bethel and then visited the nearby Native village of Napaskiak. After doing so, he told KYUK public radio that, having now been educated to the situation, he supported the solution the Native leaders with whom he had met in Anchorage had advocated because, although “most law enforcement problems really cannot be addressed solely by law enforcement,” “the highest priority now has to be figuring out how to get public safety officers, first responders, into the villages.”

The reason increasing law enforcement, rather than addressing the core causes of the crime that increased law enforcement purportedly will prevent, is the new solution to an old problem is that, as a practical political matter, it is next to impossible to do anything about the core causes.

Every Native village has its own unique history. But to generalize, most villages are situated at locations in rural Alaska that facilitated participation in the subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering economy. That was a full-employment economy in which every resident of every village — man and woman alike — had a job that conferred status and the dignity that is one of work’s most important attributes.

But, as I wrote 30 years ago in “A Call for Action:” “Natives living in rural villages are dependent, and each year more dependent, on the cash economy. Heating oil, electricity, cotton, wool and fiber-filled clothing, coffee, sugar, televisions and other accoutrements of the American mass culture are omnipresent, non-negotiable elements of contemporary village life. As a result of consumer demand generated through education, television, and other media, Native aspirations for access to the non-Native material culture can be expected to increase. But satisfying consumer demand costs money. In most Native villages money can be acquired in only two ways: it can be earned or it can be given. Most villages do not have viable cash economies. There are few jobs, and little money can be earned. Consequently, too many Natives living in rural villages meet their material needs through government transfer payments. But government largess is not without cost. Economic dependence engenders low self-esteem that contributes to the cycle of depression, alcohol abuse, violence and death.”

The political conundrum is that the key to participation in the cash economy is geographic mobility. When their labor no longer was needed in cotton fields in the rural South, millions of African Americans left Mississippi and Alabama and moved to Detroit, Cleveland, and the south side of Chicago because they wanted jobs. And during the Great Depression, my maternal grandfather moved from Texas to Los Angeles for the same reason.

But because the story of the facinorous means the U.S. Army employed during the 19th century to clear the public domain of the Indians who were occupying it continues to be one of the most emotionally powerful narratives in contemporary American popular culture, Native Americans — of which Alaska Natives are a cohort — are the only Americans who, in the 21st century, are told that they do not have to relocate if need be to have a job. That is why unemployment is as high, and the social dysfunction that is its consequence is as awful, on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota as they are in Akiachak, Noorvik and Sleetmute.

Without me telling them, many Alaska Natives have understood what I just said. That is why 29,000 now live in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and thousands more have moved from their home villages to Fairbanks, Juneau, Bethel, Kotzebue and other locations where they can find work.

What should be done about the approximately 100,000 others, almost half of whom are children and young adults, who have not? I do not know. But what I do know is that it is decades past time for Native leaders who want to be leaders and Alaska’s elected officials to jointly lead an intellectually honest, let-the-chips-fall-fairly-where-they-may, public discussion regarding what the future holds for Native villages.

And if initiating that discussion would not be enough of a challenge, there is a related challenge that may be even more vexing politically.

Too many adults who sexually or physically abuse children were sexually or physically abused when they were children. Too many boys who watched their fathers get drunk and beat their wives get drunk and beat their own wives and girlfriends. And too many teenage girls who have children are the daughters of women who had children when they were teenagers. If, in Native villages, that cycle somehow can be broken, the need for more village public safety officers and more troopers would be reduced accordingly.

I have a view as to how that might be accomplished. While there is no reason to care what my view is, what every Alaskan should care about is that how to break the cycle of multi-generational dysfunction in Native villages is another public conversation that it is past time for Native leaders and Alaska’s elected officials to have.

It is regrettable that the Native leaders who met with Attorney General Barr passed up the chance to educate him about the core causes of the crime in Native villages, which they described as a “crisis” worse than the crisis that motivated the Anchorage Daily News to publish its “People in Peril” articles. Their disinclination is understandable. But it is the Alaska Natives who live in the Native villages they each represent — and, as AFN President Janie Leask explained to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs 30 years ago, most particularly the children and young adults in those villages — who will continue to bear the consequences of their leaders’ recalcitrance.

Donald Craig Mitchell is an Anchorage attorney and the author of the two books on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He was also a former vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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