Alaska News

Senators: Native Americans need funds to fight rampant violence and sexual assault

WASHINGTON -- Consistent federal funding is needed to combat rampant violent and sexual crimes in Indian Country and Alaska, witnesses told a panel in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday.

"The crimes that we are seeing in Indian Country are heinous," said Darren Cruzan, director of the Office of Justice Services at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the Interior Department. "I think it is the lack of adequate sustainable funds that is the biggest concern for us. I do believe that we could have a significant impact if the resources were out there."

Witnesses, including Gerad Godfrey, a senior adviser to Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and the son of the late Department of Public Safety Commissioner Glenn Godfrey, spoke of staggering crime rates and high hurdles for victim support and prosecution of perpetrators. In Alaska, even more than in rural Native lands in the Lower 48, a slow response is nearly as good as none, they said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the issues "beyond troubling."

"They take an amazing place, a great state, and bring us to our knees. We've got to work on this," she said.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing was aimed in part at plans by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, to carve out a larger portion of the federal Victims Compensation Fund for Native people.

Over the last five years, Natives have never accessed more than 0.7 percent of the funds available in the fund, Barrasso said.

"Most tribes lag far behind when it comes to baseline crime victim infrastructure," he said. There are often no emergency shelters, facilities or personnel to help victims escape their situations.

Alaska's 229 tribes and villages account for 31 percent of the state's crime compensation claims.

But senators said the federal government is failing Native victims across the board.

And while Alaska has the "unfortunate distinction" of leading the nation in sexual assault, it's "worse in villages," Godfrey said, adding that six in 10 women in Alaska have experienced violence or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. "And in rural Alaska these women often have nowhere to turn," Godfrey said.

Godfrey pointed to his childhood home of Bethel and the surrounding 56 villages, a region with "staggering" levels of sexual abuse. There, a rape or instance of child sexual abuse is reported every other day, Godfrey said.

The presence of village public safety officers has a "significant impact" on health and safety, Godfrey said -- but not enough. Often troopers are delayed, no evidence is collected and no action is taken.

"Probably the single most important thing is trained personnel to respond" to victims. "And that requires, predictably, funding," Godfrey said.

It's challenging work, but many are willing to do it with proper financial support, he said. "In Alaska, specifically, that requires teams that can mobilize on short notice and in small planes to go to villages that are only accessible by air or boat."

"Through my work with Lisa, I can only say I thought my problems with remoteness were serious," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. "I just can't even wrap my mind around the problem that you have protecting a child in a village that is literally a three-hour plane ride away from any help."

If a response isn't quick enough, the cycle of abuse continues, Godfrey said.

"If (victims) don't feel that what happened to them is serious and it was very bad and somebody cares, our opportunity to restore them spiritually, emotionally and mentally probably passes. But beyond that, they also are more likely to perpetuate that as they grow older."

"We just say these statistics over and over and over again. … Alaska Native women are sexually assaulted at a rate of 12 times the national average," Murkowski said. "And it's almost like you just become numb. But think about those victims and how numb they are," she said.

Prosecution has to be an end point of action, Murkowski said. Alaskans "need to have rapid response, but if the rapid response doesn't yield anything that equates to justice at the end, what have we done to let them believe that they do have value? That their speaking up will yield a different outcome, instead of just another instance of victimization, perhaps by the same person?"

Erin’s Law in Washington

Godfrey and Murkowski both spoke in support of mandatory sexual assault education in schools, touting legislation known as "Erin's Law" that has foundered in the Alaska Senate.

Many children in villages are not educated "about appropriate touch and inappropriate touch," and child abuse is not as stigmatized in rural Alaska as it is elsewhere, Godfrey said. Often mothers and grandmothers tell children it happened to them and "that's just the way life is," he said.

Godfrey told a story from his own youth in Bethel. In the third or fourth grade, he asked a friend why his sister was "so nice sometimes and then sometimes crazy for no reason."

"He told me … 'Aw, she gets that way -- her counselor said she's always going to be that way because her cousin and an uncle raped her, and we just learned to put up with it.' And he was just cavalier about it."

When he moved to Anchorage, the attitude was different, Godfrey said.

In his role now, he's often met with victims who have been assaulted by three or four relatives, Godfrey said.

Murkowski advocated for early awareness and educating children "that this is not acceptable," she said. There is "a lot of discussion about whether or not we can require this in our schools," she said, but suggested that when it comes to sexual assault, "it may be some of those school board members are part of our problem."

Violence across Indian Country

Witnesses at the hearing made it clear that violence and sexual assault -- especially against children -- are devastating not only in Alaska but Native lands across the country.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said the funding problem starts much earlier than the victims compensation fund and won't improve without major new action.

Violence is the leading cause of death for Native children -- as high as 75 percent, said A.T. "Rusty" Stafne, chairman of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in Montana. At a middle school in his area, 20 percent of children tested positive for sexually transmitted diseases.

"Our needs for victims services are overwhelming," Stafne said. He echoed the other panelists' calls for consistent funding. "We'd be able to attract qualified people," he said, noting that "no one wants to take a job" that might not be there in 60 days or a year because it is grant-funded.

Often victims don't report crimes because they know there are no services available, said Dianne Barker Harrold, a tribal court judge for the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. If there is nowhere to go and no prosecution, many find it easier to keep quiet, Harrold said.

Heitkamp pointed to a bill she and Murkowski recently passed through the Senate, saying they hope it "will get great traction in the House to try to find some systematic response" to the problems of Indian Country.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.