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Alaska Tribes Angry With VAWA Exemption Error

By | April 25, 2012

Alaska tribal advocates are upset by a section in the federal reauthorization of the 2000 Violence Against Women Act. Section 905 of the act would expand tribal court jurisdiction by allowing those courts to issue protective orders against ‘any person’ including non-Native offenders. That expansion in the eyes of Congress was a problem in Alaska where the legal status known as ‘Indian Country’ does not exist as it does on lower 48 reservations. The expansion was meant for those tribes not Alaska’s. That caused language to be added that would have exempted Alaska’s tribes from even their current jurisdiction over their members. Senator’s Murkowski and Begich are working on a fix, something called a savings clause that will retain the current authority for tribal courts in Alaska. Native American Rights Fund Attorney Natalie Landreth says removing the exemptions is important, but the fact that the exemption was there at all is disturbing.

“We’ve seen Alaska exemptions in Federal law. I’ve seen them for going on ten years, the rest of the Native community has been watching them for more than thirty years.  And I think looking at them in this law really struck a cord. Not only is it the absolute worst place to remove tribal authority, but people are sick and tired of being exempt from protections that are extended to tribes in the lower 48. Alaska was and continues to be treated by Congress like they are the second class citizens of the Native American community.”

Indian Country means land jurisdiction.  Alaska tribes don’t have that status so to expand the authority here would mean new legislation and possibly public hearings. Natalie Landreth says, over the last three decades federal courts are moving away from land based jurisdiction to membership and interest jurisdiction. And she says there is a misunderstanding of tribal courts in Alaska.

“The most common argument I see is that people are concerned  over subjecting citizens to tribal courts. Well, I think, if they would spend a little time with tribal courts and see how effective and how diverse they are and how they solve problems, I think people would really understand why it’s an excellent resource, not only for the local community but a great compliment to state and federal law enforcement.”

Although the fix being crafted by Murkowski and Begich should take care of preserving Alaska tribal court authority, there’s no guarantee the Act will move out of the Senate by adjournment tomorrow. If it does pass, its fate is less certain in the House.

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