Alaska Natives are lining up in opposition to Lower 48 tribes over the congressional reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Lower 48 tribes are pushing hard in favor of the bill because it gives tribal courts jurisdiction on reservations to prosecute non-Indians who attack Indian women. But in Alaska, where few Natives live on a reservation, tribes say it actually would take away their power to intervene in domestic violence.
The Alaska Federation of Natives held an emergency meeting Monday on the issue and sent a letter to Alaska's congressional delegation, saying the bill “cripples the ability of Alaska tribes to intervene even in an emergency.”
“It shocks the conscience that an entire state — and home to 45 percent of the tribes in the United States — would be exempt from an entire bill … particularly appalling in light of statistics showing that Alaska Natives are vastly overrepresented among the victims of domestic violence,” said the letter from the AFN to the delegation.
Federal law allows Alaska tribal courts and councils to slap restraining orders on people who commit domestic violence, demanding they stay away from victims — or in extreme cases, banishing them from villages. The Alaska Federation of Natives says the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which is expected to be voted on in the Senate this week, would take away that power by removing the requirement that such orders be enforced.
The Central Council Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska passed a resolution condemning the bill's language.
“We believe the way Congress is addressing the law is a challenge to the sovereignty to our tribe and all tribes in Alaska,” said Bob Loescher, a member of the Tlingit and Haida judiciary committee.
Congressional staff suggested that the apparent removal of authority for Alaska tribes came because of the fact the state generally lacks reservations, raising issues of jurisdiction that don't exist in the Lower 48.
Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich said Tuesday they would introduce amendments to try and allow Alaska tribes to continue having protective orders respected. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell is also in favor.
But regardless of how that turns out, Alaska tribes almost surely would be excluded from the expanded law enforcement powers that the bill grants to Lower 48 tribes. The measure would allow tribes to criminally prosecute non-Indians if they commit a domestic violence or sexual assault crime on a reservation against an Indian. It is a huge issue for Lower 48 tribes, which have been lobbying hard for Congress to pass the bill.
Alaska Gov. Parnell doesn't support such an expansion in his state, said Kip Knudson, who leads Parnell's Washington office. Knudson said Parnell would rather see more village public safety officers.
“He's not convinced that a change in federal law or a change in jurisdiction is the best tool at this point,” Knudson said.
There's also the issue that Alaska has no federally designated reservations except Metlakatla in the state's Southeast, with a population of 1,419.
The question of what constitutes “Indian Country” under tribal jurisdiction in Alaska is controversial. A federal appeals court in 1996 recognized some Native corporation land in Alaska as Indian Country, but the decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later.