Rural Alaska

Report suggests ways to curb violence, abuse in Alaska Native communities

On Tuesday morning, a task force presented its recommendations to U.S. Department of Justice officials on ways to curb violence toward Alaska Native and American Indian children, following a year of research and public hearings across the nation.

Among the recommendations are Alaska-specific changes that the task force hopes will address shockingly high rates of abuse within Alaska Native populations.

The report that resulted from the task force's work, "Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive," was prepared as part of the DOJ's Defending Childhood Initiative, launched by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2010. The report lays out what the task force found to be the most pressing changes needed to "heal and protect" American Indian and Alaska Native children.

"Today, a vast majority of American Indian and Alaska Native children live in communities with alarmingly high rates of poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide and victimization ... We cannot stand by and watch these children -- who are the future of American Indian and Alaska Native communities -- destroyed by reckless violence," wrote the task force's co-chairs, retired U.S. Sen. Bryon L. Dorgan and Iroquois composer and singer Joanne Shenandoah.

"Of all the people that remain left behind in this country, I remain convinced that American Indian children rank near the top," Dorgan said during a Tuesday press conference.

The final chapter of the report focuses specifically on Alaska, where violence is "systemically worse" than in the rest of the U.S., the report says.

The report cites numerous statistics illustrating the extent of such violence: Alaska Native women suffer the highest rate of forcible sexual assault of any population in the U.S. An Alaska Native woman is sexually assaulted every 18 hours. Alaska's child sexual assault rate is six times the national average, and Alaska Native children suffer this trauma disproportionately. Alaska Native children constitute just 17.3 percent of the state's overall population of children but about half of reports of child maltreatment. Alaska Native suicide rates are four times the national average.

The report recommends amending the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act so that tribal courts can take criminal action against violent offenders.

"Until and unless these barriers are removed, the state of Alaska will continue to assert that Alaska Tribes do not have any criminal jurisdiction and thereby continue to contend that Alaska Tribes are only empowered to utilize civil courts and civil remedies when confronting the highest rates of violent crime in the country," the report states.

The report noted Alaska is also exempted from the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which restored tribal jurisdiction over domestic violence cases.

Alaska's Valerie Davidson, former senior director of legal and intergovernmental affairs at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, is one of nine members who contributed to the report.

Davidson called Alaska's federal exemptions a "punishment" during a press conference Tuesday. The exemptions must be removed for Alaska Natives to have the same protections as American Indians in the rest of the United States, she said.

Other recommendations for Alaska include:

• The state should prioritize having at least one onsite law enforcement official in every village. The report states that fewer than half of rural villages are staffed with trained state law enforcement.
• Prioritize funding for village-based women’s shelters, child advocacy centers, and drug and alcohol treatment centers.
• Pass national legislation that supports the development of Alaska tribal courts.
• Establish a task force to develop strategies to reduce the disproportionate number of Alaska Native children in foster care.
• Allow Alaska tribes to manage their own subsistence fishing and hunting rights, as “violence spikes during times when Alaska Natives are unable to provide for their families,” the report says.

Nationwide, the task force offered recommendations to make broad changes that will require "substantial investment and new appropriations," Shenandoah and Dorgan wrote. "Progress will not be made until Congress passes legislation requiring mandatory spending for tribal children and youth."

Recommendations include:

• Direct funding to tribal criminal and civil justice systems and child protection systems. The task force “believes that treaties, existing law and trust responsibilities are not discretionary and demand this action,” the report states.
• End grant-based and competitive criminal justice funding, instead “establishing a permanent, recurring base funding system for tribal law enforcement and justice services.”
• Increase and support access to culturally appropriate behavioral health and substance abuse treatment services.
• Reform the “grossly underfunded” tribal juvenile justice system so it is tribally operated or strongly influenced by local tribes.
• Set aside money for research to develop trauma screens for use among American Indian and Alaska Native children, to be used in schools, juvenile justice and primary care.
• Establish a permanent Native American Affairs Office within the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Dorgan reiterated multiple times during Tuesday's press conference the need for increased funding for tribal governments and programs, to address what he called an "unbelievable shortfall" of funding, although he did not have an estimate of what funding would be needed.

Dorgan said there were "no assurances" that the funding requests would be taken up by the newly Republican majority in both houses of Congress.

The full report is available online.

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.