Proponents fight for change so Alaska Natives covered by VAWA

Ishmael Hope, left, and other Alaska Native representatives at the 2013 Choose Respect rally in Juneau, Alaska, asking legislators to address issues with the Violence Against Women Act.Heather Bryant/KTOO Public Media
Ishmael Hope, left, and other Alaska Native representatives at the 2013 Choose Respect rally in Juneau, Alaska, asking legislators to address issues with the Violence Against Women Act.Heather Bryant/KTOO Public Media

Complicated history sets Alaska Native women apart from Violence Against Women Act

By Kayla Gahagan, ALJAZEERA America

Opponents of the reauthorization of a federal law passed last year say it has created a dangerous situation for Alaskan domestic violence victims and are urging lawmakers to support a repeal.

Proponents of the original 1994 Violence Against Women Act say it was signed into law with the purpose of providing more protection for domestic violence victims and keeping victims safe by requiring that a victim’s protection order be recognized and enforced in all state, tribal and territorial jurisdictions in the U.S.

According to the White House, the VAWA has made a difference, saying that intimate partner violence declined by 67 percent from 1993 to 2010, more victims now report domestic violence, more arrests have been made and all states impose criminal sanctions for violating a civil protection order.

Last year the law was reauthorized, clarifying a court decision that ruled on a case involving civil jurisdiction for non–tribal members and amending the law to recognize tribal civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection orders “involving any person,” including non-Natives.

But almost all Alaska tribes were excluded from the amendment, with only the Metlakatla Indian community from Alaska included under the 2013 law. The rest of Alaska remains under the old law.

The change has created confusion, opponents say, particularly in cases when there is a 911 call about enforcing a protective order.

“The trooper is waiting, because he’s not sure who has jurisdiction,” said David Voluck, a tribal court judge for the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “We need to get rid of those exceptions that create confusion.”

An ongoing debate

The reauthorization highlighted an ongoing debate about Native communities and tribal courts’ and governments’ jurisdiction, particularly in cases of policing and justice.

The reauthorization made sense, according to Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty, who noted that Alaska has always been treated differently because of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In exchange for 40 million acres of land and about $1 billion, he said, tribes forfeited reservations and the notion of Indian country to form Native corporations.

He said the state needs to find better ways to collaborate with institutions in small communities to provide better protection and justice but disagrees with giving pockets of tribal authority throughout Alaska.

“We do have an issue with violence and domestic violence,” he said. “We have a challenge in providing safety.”

But Geraghty said he has never heard of a situation when a victim was in danger because of confusion over jurisdiction.

“There’s nothing in the act that expands or retracts the jurisdiction of tribal courts,” he said. “If tribal courts had jurisdiction before, they do now. Troopers are not lawyers. If they are faced with a situation, they are going to protect the public. These concerns are overblown.”

‘A cloud over Alaska’

Lloyd Miller, an attorney who works on Indian rights and tribal jurisdiction litigation, disagrees and said things did change with the 2013 reauthorization.

“What he’s saying is that an Alaska village only has the authority to issue a protective order if that man is a member of the tribe. They can’t if he’s from the neighboring tribe,” he said. “Why would we not want to have Alaska villages have all the tools to protect women from domestic violence?”

Voluck agreed. “Does it really matter if a woman is hit in a mall somewhere or the south corner of where the tribe lives?” he said.

Opponents of the Alaska exemption recently urged a task force convened by Attorney General Eric Holder to study the effects of violence on Native American children to support the repeal of Section 910 of the law.

“VAWA creates a cloud over Alaska, and the last thing women and children need is a delay in an emergency,” said Voluck. “A matter of minutes can mean life or death. It’s unequal protection under the law for a very vulnerable part of the population.”

Lack of law enforcement

Voluck was one of a number of experts who testified last month before the Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence about the special circumstances surrounding Alaska Native domestic violence, including geography, a lack of law enforcement and difficulty for victims to travel to safety.

Experts attested to a number of facts, including that Native American and Alaska Native women are 2.5 times as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other American women. About 140 villages have no state law enforcement. Eighty have absolutely no law enforcement. One-third of Alaska communities do not have road access.

It’s a serious issue for communities, said Valerie Davidson, a task force member who lives in Alaska. “Even if you only have 300 people, you still need law enforcement,” she said.

The debate continues, this time in Congress as the Senate Indian Affairs Committee works on legislation, which includes a provision repealing Section 910 of the 2013 reauthorization. Geraghty and the governor oppose a repeal, but the U.S. attorney general’s office has voiced its support.

Associate U.S. Attorney General Tony West attended the Alaska task force hearing and said arguments about the scope of authority of Alaska Native villages and tribes shouldn’t get in the way of protecting Native children from harm.

“If there are steps we can take that will help move the needle in the direction for victims, we need to do it,” he said. “When a tribal court issues an order, the state ought to enforce it. If not, the orders are worth nothing more than the paper they’re written on.”

More than just symbolic

Repealing the law won’t resolve the multilayered issues of jurisdiction, but it would be a step in the right direction, West added.

“It is more than just symbolic,” he said. “Repeal of Section 910 is an important step that can help protect Alaska Native victims of that violence and, significantly, the children who often witness it, and it can send a message that tribal authority and tribal sovereignty matters, that the civil protection orders tribal courts issue ought to be respected and enforced.”

The Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence will make a recommendation to Holder by late October.

“Alaska is frozen in time,” Voluck said. “Why in the world would you hold the worst state when it comes to domestic violence in the old law? Forty-nine other states have figured out how to work with their tribal courts. Let’s work together. People are getting hurt and dying. That’s why I’m upset.”

DOJ Official Inspires Action at First Hearing on Effect of Exposure to Violence on Native Children

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, FileIn this Feb. 5, 2013 file photo, U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West gestures during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington. West is scheduled to be in Bismarck, N.D. on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, to talks about plans for a national task force to examine the impact of exposure to violence on American Indian and Alaska Native children.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File
In this Feb. 5, 2013 file photo, U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West gestures during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington. West is scheduled to be in Bismarck, N.D. on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, to talks about plans for a national task force to examine the impact of exposure to violence on American Indian and Alaska Native children.

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

“One of the reasons why it’s important for me to go to Indian country periodically is to remind myself that people living there do not give up. And if they’re not giving up, we’re not giving up,” U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West, the department’s third-highest official, told the Associated Press.

The first public hearing of the advisory committee of the 12-member Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence was held Monday, December 9 in Bismarck, North Dakota. The task force is divided into two tiers: a federal working group comprised of U.S. attorneys and officials from federal Interior and Justice departments, and an advisory committee of experts on Native American studies, child health and trauma and child welfare and law. The committee makes policy recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder.

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After graciously thanking all of his colleagues and others instrumental in making the Task Force a reality, West expressed deep appreciation to the Task Force Advisory Committee’s two co-chairs, former U.S. Sen. Dorgan and Iroquois composer and singer Joanne Shenandoah.

“As everyone in this room knows, Senator Dorgan has been a champion of North Dakota’s tribes during his entire career, including his 30 years in Congress. His commitment to children in tribal nations is unparalleled,” West said. “Likewise, Ms. Shenandoah is a highly respected and deservedly celebrated artist who has used her talent to call attention to the plight of children in Indian country. We are very fortunate to have them at the helm of this group and leading this effort, and I’m thankful, too, to the other members of the committee for their commitment and expertise.”

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Below is an except of West’s prepared remarks at the hearing:

“Fifty years ago Attorney General Robert Kennedy came here to Bismarck and spoke of the “tragic irony” of First Americans living in the freest country in the world yet imprisoned by conditions of poverty and deprivation — conditions not found in the natural order of things but manmade, imposed and perpetuated by bigotry and greed and violence.

And Attorney General Kennedy spoke of our responsibility to reverse that historical tide, so that the light of freedom, just dawning, he said, in his own lifetime, might fully shine on his children.

And so we’ve come here to Bismarck, a half-century later, to help fulfill that pledge, and to reaffirm a promise we must make to all of our children: that their safety and well-being is our highest priority; that they are sacred beings, gifts from the Creator to be cherished, cared for, and protected.

Because the simple, sad fact is that too many of our American Indian and Alaska Native children still suffer or witness violence in Indian country. Too many see family members or friends fall victim to violence; and too many are victims themselves.

And the impact this has on lives both young and old cannot be overstated. It tears at the fabric of family and community; it disrupts the present and too often darkens the future. The scars of violence can run deep and have impacts that can seep from one generation into the next.

We know from our own research at the Justice Department that a majority of America’s children—more than 60 percent—are exposed to some form of violence, crime, or abuse, ranging from brief encounters as witnesses to serious violent episodes as victims.

We know that, tragically, almost 40 percent are direct victims of two or more violent acts.

Often this violence occurs in the place where our children should feel the safest: at home. While domestic violence plagues many communities across the country, research shows that rates of domestic violence against Native women are among the highest in the entire United States.

And while we don’t know how many American Indian and Alaska Native children witness this kind of violence; or how many are removed from their homes and experience disruption in their lives as a result; or how many end up continuing the cycle by hurting others; we do know that the impact of on our kids having been exposed to violence can be serious, ranging from poor academic performance and drug and alcohol abuse to long-term psychological harm or even criminal behavior later in life.

But we also know something else: We know that we need not accept these outcomes as inevitable, because our young people are resilient and can return to living normal, healthy lives, as long as they have the benefit of proper intervention.

So as we listen to the testimony today, let us look for new ways in which we can engage all community members — tribal and spiritual leaders; elders and parents; teachers and coaches; and, importantly, young people themselves — let us all be enlisted to address this critical issue, because it is a challenge that requires no less.

Today’s hearing is an important step in that direction, and it’s a natural extension of work the Obama Administration has pursued to fulfill this nation’s trust responsibility and address the challenges that American Indian and Alaska Native communities face.

It grows out of the work that Attorney General Holder began three years ago with a new initiative he called “Defending Childhood.” The goal of Defending Childhood was to improve our knowledge about what works to reduce children’s exposure to violence and how to lessen the long-term adverse impacts of that exposure when it does occur.

And as part of that effort, as many of you know, the Attorney General appointed a national Task Force to identify ways to reduce children’s exposure to violence and to recommend policy changes at the federal level to meet that goal.

We’re implementing one of those recommendations this morning:  a special effort aimed at examining and addressing the exposure of American Indian and Alaska Native children to violence, in ways that recognize the unique government-to-government relationship between sovereign tribal nations and the United States.

There are two parts to this special task force: a Federal Working Group comprised of high-ranking federal officials who work with tribal communities everyday; and an Advisory Committee made of up experts with insights into children’s exposure to violence in native communities.

Now, the Federal Working Group was formed because we know there are things we can do now—things that need not wait for more study—that can have a direct and immediate impact in kids’ lives right now.

So officials from the Departments of Justice, the Interior, and Health and Human Services with proven dedication and experience in Indian country have come together as part of this Federal Working Group to do just that.

And already, they are making a difference.  Here’s one example.  About a year ago, I traveled to the Ute Mountain Ute and Northern Cheyenne reservations.  And among the places I visited were the detention centers, where both adults and juveniles are held.

Now it’s always tragic whenever a young person is locked up; but that tragedy is compounded when that child is warehoused without any assistance that can help prevent that child from future incarceration. And in these two facilities, kids weren’t getting access to adequate educational programming or counseling.

So the Federal Working Group came together and tackled this issue, cutting through the red tape and working together such that contracts are now being secured for teachers who will provide culturally-sensitive educational and counseling services to native youths held in those BIA detention facilities at both Ute Mountain Ute and Northern Cheyenne.

Now, in addition to addressing those immediate issues, we must also develop a strategic approach to the long-term issues of violence that affect children in Indian country. So we’ve augmented the work of the Federal Working Group with an Advisory Committee of experts who have dedicated themselves to improving the lives of children in native communities.

Over the next year, the Advisory Committee will travel the country, holding hearings and listening sessions. They will comb through the research and consult with others to help us paint a clearer picture of the incidence of violence among native children, and help identify ways to prevent it.

And next fall, the Advisory Committee’s work will culminate in a final report—a strategic plan of action that will guide practitioners and policymakers at all levels. And, like the work of the Defending Childhood Task Force, the recommendations of the Advisory Committee will not sit on some shelf collecting dust; as the Attorney General said in his greeting this morning, your work will serve as a blueprint that will guide us into the future.

So this is our charge and our challenge. Today represents an early and important step in protecting American Indian and Alaska Native children. No one here expects this work to be easy, or that the efforts we embark on here will lead to a panacea. But it is an investment—an investment in our children; in the future of sovereign tribal nations on this continent; an investment we fail to make at our own peril, and one whose return will be measured not in dollars and cents, but in the young smiles you create; the doors of hope you will open; the futures you will shape; and the lives you will change.

Thank you for commitment to this work.”