WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is concerned about efforts in the U.S. Senate to exclude Alaska tribes from tribal jurisdiction and protection provisions of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
“The Department of Justice sent its proposal for VAWA tribal provisions to Congress last July,” Allison Price, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Those provisions were of nationwide scope and did not exclude any state or any set of tribes.
“To ensure the safety of Native women, it is critically important that tribal courts in Alaska and throughout the United States retain full civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection orders,” Price added.
The Obama administration’s stance comes amid revelations that sometime between the November 30, 2011 introduction of the bill and the February 2 reporting of the bill out of the U.S. Judiciary Committee, language was inserted that would exclude about 230 Alaska tribes from Sections 904 and 905. That’s 40 percent of all federally recognized tribes in the United States.
Section 904 of the current bill is intended to recognize tribal court jurisdiction over non-Indian domestic violence offenders. Section 905 allows for tribal protection orders involving “any person,” including non-Indian offenders.
If these sections are enacted with the exemption language currently in place, Alaska Natives would have less protection under federal law than Natives in the lower 48 states. While all other tribes in the U.S. would get new criminal jurisdiction – criminal jurisdiction that is badly needed, according to tribal and federal officials – Alaska tribes would not.
The office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has indicated that the senator is also concerned about the issue: “Senator Murkowski is extremely concerned about this inadvertent drafting error and she is in the process of resolving the issue through the amendment process,” Matthew Felling, a spokesperson for the senator, told Indian Country Today Media Network on April 25.
But Murkowski’s office has not explained her role in how and why the “drafting error” occurred.
On April 26, Felling added that Murkowski plans to offer a new technical amendment that “would ensure that Alaska Native tribes lose none of the civil jurisdiction they presently possess.”
Murkowski’s rationale for going this route remains unclear, since under Alaska tribes’ current jurisdiction, the crime rate Natives suffer from is alarming, according to crime statistics.
“This omission from these bills is particularly appalling in light of statistics showing that Alaska Natives are vastly overrepresented among the victims of domestic violence,” according to a draft letter from the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) addressed to Murkowski and others in the Alaska congressional delegation. “Although Alaska Natives comprise only 15.2 percent of the population of the State of Alaska, they comprise 47 percent of the victims of domestic violence and 61 percent of the victims of sexual assault.”
Regional studies have also shown that Native women in the Ahtna region are three times more likely to experience domestic violence than other women in the U.S., and eight to 12 times more likely to experience physical assault. The daunting statistics have been even higher among Athabascan women, according to the studies.
“There can be no doubt that the situation among Alaska Natives is among the worst in the United States,” the AFN letter states.
Murkowski has not explained why she would want to maintain this status quo in Alaska Native communities.
Earlier in the month, the Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska passed a resolution opposing the Senate bill’s language that tribal leaders say “discriminates against Alaska Native families.”