An Alaska non-profit wants to do something new—set up courts for about one-fourth of Alaska’s tribes. The Association of Village Council Presidents, or AVCP, is a nonprofit representing 56 villages across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and they want each village to develop its own tribal court. Before they can do that, AVCP has to develop a model for something that has never existed.
Tribal courts exist in the Lower 48 but are rare in Alaska. There are 10 courts in the YK region.
Monique Vondall-Rieke is working to change that.
“It’s a really big order to fill, but it’s part of history,” said Vondall-Rieke.
AVCP has tasked its Tribal Justice Center with developing a court in each of its 56 villages. Right now, Vondall-Rieke is the director and sole member of the department. She comes from North Dakota where she served as a tribal court justice for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
“Through development of tribal courts, you’re saying, we are empowering ourselves to be able to deal with our own issues,” said Vondall-Rieke. “And it increases your exercise of sovereign immunity.
Tribal courts often deal with civil issues like disputes between tribal members, between businesses and members, and between tribes and agencies. They handle child custody cases, adoptions, and juvenile cases. They also try and prosecute misdemeanors committed within the tribe’s jurisdiction.
Because this process operates without law enforcement, it protects tribal members from racking up criminal records and it saves the state money.
The current hitch is that in Alaska lands cannot be taken into trust, which makes it difficult to define a tribe’s jurisdiction and impossible to secure federal funding to run the courts.
But AVCP is moving forward anyway with the hope that Gov. Walker’s administration will drop the lawsuit fighting trust status.
AVCP received a multi-million dollar federal grant that allows the Bureau of Indian Affairs to fund the court assessments without taking land into trust. Last month, Vondall-Rieke and a group of consultants from the lower-48 travelled to two YK villages—Emmonak and Kongiganak—to begin creating the model, which they will roll out at the annual BIA Providers Conference in Anchorage this December.
“The plan is that once we have this assessment model tool designed, then the BIA can take that to the other nonprofit organizations that represent tribes in Alaska, and do the same thing there. So their turn will be coming,” said Vondall-Rieke.
What makes the assessment model unique is that it is being solicited by a tribal organization rather than a tribe, as what usually happens in the lower-48.
After the conference, people can begin applying to conduct the assessments.
The lower-48 consultants are looking for specific credentials— Yup’ik speaking, local, Alaska Natives with law degrees.
“That’s kind of a tall order for our area. We’re very limited in the law degrees that are held by tribal members in our area, especially Yup’ik speaking tribal members,” said Vondall-Rieke.
Even if the assessors don’t carry law degrees, they’ll need specialized education.
“Certainly you have to have some knowledge of tribal courts or law. You have to probably have to have at least a Phd, be a good researcher. It’s a lot of data gathering and it’s a lot of footwork, but it’ll leave a legacy behind.”
Vondall-Rieke hopes the assessments will begin in January.
“I’m looking for updated tribal constitutions, updated tribal codes, the case load of each court that’s in existence already,” said Vondall-Rieke.
She also wants to begin trainings for court judges, clerks, and staff as well as law enforcement and tribal council members at that time.
Vondall-Rieke hopes the 56 assessments will be completed by late 2018.