The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee today looked at a raft of bills aimed at improving the safety of Native American communities, including Alaska Native villages. A bill that would strengthen Alaska tribal courts and tribal law enforcement drew no opposition at the hearing, but the bill is likely to become more controversial.
Natasha Singh, General Counsel for Tanana Chiefs Conference and also a tribal judge in Stevens Village, told an anecdote to illustrate the problem. Last summer, she was in a village when an intoxicated man tried to sexually assault a 13-year-old girl. Village leaders called the State Troopers but were told they couldn’t respond. Singh says this is at least the third such attempt by the same man.
“Now this man is currently still in the village. He regularly drinks, and the community, the women and children, have little protection from this individual,” Singh testified. “Do not allow this man to continue to terrorize his tribe.”
A bill sponsored by Alaska Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski aims to improve the delivery of justice in villages. It would repeal the exclusion of most of Alaska from a law called the Violence Against Women Act. The bill, the Alaska Safe Villages and Families Act, also encourages the state of Alaska to sign agreements with the tribes to enforce state law and deal with drug and alcohol offenses.
Singh says that doesn’t require federal law, because it’s essentially pre-trial diversion, or the state delegating it’s authority to the tribes. TCC and the state are working on agreements to do that already. She says the bill should go further and provide federal recognition of the tribe’s authority to deal, on its own, with local domestic violence and sexual assault as well as drug and alcohol offenses, even when the accused is not part of the tribe.
“What I’d like to tell you today is that if a woman in a village is the subject of domestic violence, the local tribal court must be assured that it may take lawful, immediate action against the abuser, regardless of tribal membership,” she said.
A TCC proposal, endorsed by other Native groups, calls for adding an Alaska “tribal law project” to the bill to recognize that kind of authority. Singh says the tribes would have civil jurisdiction only, unless the state agrees to more. And that’s highly unlikely, at least while Sean Parnell is governor. The head of the governor’s Washington D.C. office, Kip Knudson, declined to be interviewed for this story, but said Parnell’s response was reflected in a 2011 letter detailing the state’s response to a similar bill. In it, then-Attorney General John Burns suggested the bill was aimed at advancing tribal sovereignty rather than improving law enforcement. He also objected to what he said would be the dividing of Alaska into multiple jurisdictions.
At the hearing, Sen. Mark Begich told Singh he was open to adding the tribal law project to the bill.
“You need some assistance from the federal government so you can create some additional tools in the tool box for justice within your own communities,” he said.
In a letter to Parnell last week, Begich said the public safety problem in Alaska is so severe it warrants an “all of the above” approach. Such an approach, though, might cost him a co-sponsor. Sen. Murkowski said at the hearing she wants to pursue funding and training for Alaska’s tribal courts. Her spokesman Matt Felling says Murkowski has opposed previous proposals to extend Alaska tribal jurisdiction over non-members of the tribe.