WASHINGTON – Approximately 230 out of the 566 federally recognized tribes would not be covered under tribal provisions of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization, currently being considered in the U.S. Senate.
Tribal advocates are concerned that the exclusion of these tribes — all based in Alaska — will allow a large number of Native women to go unprotected under Sections 904 and 905 of the proposed legislation. The provisions are meant to expand tribal court jurisdiction and protection orders involving crimes committed against Indians.
The current language of Section 904 contains a caveat that says, “Nothing in this section … shall apply to an Indian tribe in the State of Alaska, except with respect to the Metlakatla Indian Community, Annette Islands Reserve….”
Section 905, too, says that it “shall not apply to an Indian tribe in the State of Alaska, except with respect to the Metlakatla Indian Community….”
The omission of the Alaska tribes is gaining increased attention at the same time that some Senate Republicans are trying to get the tribal protection provisions removed altogether.
The rules excluding Alaska Natives were drafted somewhere in the Senate, likely in the U.S. Judiciary Committee, according to tribal officials monitoring the legislation’s progress. The bill’s original language did not include the anti-Alaska tribal provisions, so the language must have been substituted in committee. Anti-Alaska tribal interests are widely speculated to have been behind the change.
Metlakatla is likely singled out because it is the only tribe in Alaska with a reservation, so it tends to operate more like tribes in the lower 48 states on some federal issues.
Tribal advocates are now urging Alaska legislators, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R, and Mark Begich, D, as well as Rep. Don Young, R, to push for a change in the language this week before the final bill is put up for a vote in the Senate. The House would also need to change the language of its companion bill for Alaska tribes to be included.
“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 spokesman for the senator, told Indian Country Today Media Network.
The Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska passed a resolution on April 21 opposing language that tribal leaders say “discriminates against Alaska Native families.” The resolution calls for the removal of the bill’s language excluding Alaska Natives.
“We believe the way Congress is addressing the law is a challenge to the sovereignty to our tribe and all tribes in Alaska,” Bob Loescher, a tribal judiciary committee member, told the Sit News publication after the resolution’s passage. “There’s no need to do that. We have the inherent right under the U.S. Constitution to protect our children and families, and our women, and that right should be upheld by Congress. We believe that Congress should eliminate this amendment to the Violence of Women Act on behalf of all tribes and all women in Alaska.”
The Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), meanwhile, has sent a letter to the Alaska congressional delegation calling for the removal of the Alaska exemptions from the bill. The Native organization is currently considering passing a resolution as well.
“The message these bills send is: Alaska Native women and children are less worthy of protection than victims in the lower 48 states,” according to the AFN letter.
“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,” the letter continues. “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.
The letter goes on to say that the vast majority of Alaska Native communities have no formal law enforcement presence. “As of 2011, there were Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs) in 74 rural communities, and Village or Tribal Police Officers (VPOs and TPOs), which are supervised by the tribes and not the state, in 52 communities,” according to the letter. “Ninety-one rural communities have neither and thus no law enforcement presence at all.”
The letter concludes that tribal courts are “critical partners in the protection of Alaska Native women and children,” noting that tribal courts would be supported under the VAWA reauthorization.
A final vote has yet to be scheduled on the bill, so Alaska legislators have time to have input if they are so inclined.