Navajos to vote on role language will play in tribal presidency

FILE - In this Nov. 2014, file photo, Navajo Nation presidential candidate Russell Begaye, center, speaks with a group during the Navajo Nation elections outside of the Shiprock Chapter House in Shiprock, N.M. Voters on the country’s largest American Indian reservation are choosing a new president who will have to deal with rampant unemployment and a lack of infrastructure while helping tribal members through a bitter dispute that has divided communities. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP, File)

FILE – In this Nov. 2014, file photo, Navajo Nation presidential candidate Russell Begaye, center, speaks with a group during the Navajo Nation elections outside of the Shiprock Chapter House in Shiprock, N.M. Voters on the country’s largest American Indian reservation are choosing a new president who will have to deal with rampant unemployment and a lack of infrastructure while helping tribal members through a bitter dispute that has divided communities. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP, File)

Tribal law now requires top leaders to understand, be fluent; voters will decide whether to continue or ease the qualification.

By FELICIA FONSECA, The Associated Press

Flagstaff, Ariz. » It’s a question that dominated conversation in the Navajo Nation presidential election: Should the tribe’s top leader be fluent in the language?

Voters will settle that question Tuesday in a referendum vote.

Tribal law now requires candidates for tribal president and vice president to understand Navajo and speak it fluently, and read and write English — a qualification that can be enforced through tribal courts. An affirmative vote on the referendum would let individual Navajos decide whether candidates speak and understand Navajo well enough to hold office.

The debate goes beyond tribal politics and to the heart of the identity of Navajos. The language is a defining part of the tribe’s culture, said to be handed down by deities, but not all Navajos believe it should dictate who gets to seek the tribe’s top posts.

Judy Donaldson says she’s willing to let a Navajo president learn the language along the way, as long as that person is well educated and can navigate politics on and off the reservation. She said voters should question candidates at campaign rallies to get a true sense of where they stand.

“The voters know who they want to lead us,” she said. “They’re not just going to pick my uncle because he gave us 20 bucks. They’ll say, ‘look at this person here, he can do it, he has a Ph.D.'”

A simple majority of voters would have to approve the referendum for it to pass. The revised requirement would be in effect for the 2018 election.

The Navajo Nation Council approved the referendum after efforts to make changes to the fluency requirement failed through other legislation. It came as the result of Chris Deschene being disqualified from the most recent presidential race because he refused to show he could speak fluent Navajo.

Some Navajos rallied around him, questioning the definition of “fluency” and saying a well-educated Navajo who intended to learn the language shouldn’t be ruled out for the presidency. But others said Deschene lied when he attested to being fluent in the language and deserved to be knocked out of the race. The tribe’s high court ruled that fluency in Navajo is a reasonable requirement for the presidency.

More people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language, about 170,000 out of 300,000 tribal members, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Tiffany Manygoats doesn’t want to be counted among the non-speaking statistic and strives to learn the language, going so far as to seek out a partner who knows it.

“Being someone who doesn’t speak fluently and trying to learn my language and culture and everything, I don’t want to have our Navajo Nation president lacking what I lack,” she said. “It’s a little scary knowing it could die out pretty soon and I would be just another wash out.”

Tribal President Russell Begaye said the Navajo people should insist that the top two leaders speak Navajo, a language that the federal government tried to eradicate but also sought out for a code that helped win World War II.

“The referendum is part of this whole brainwashing agenda to say that we should lay down our language and assimilate into the American society,” Begaye said.

Christina Platero sees learning the Navajo language as a personal decision and one made within families, not one tribal government should mandate. Not knowing the language fluently shouldn’t be a black mark against candidates, she said, and suggested the president could have an interpreter to speak with tribal members who don’t understand English.

Above all, she encouraged Navajos to vote Tuesday.

“Think about it first before you make that decision, think about the consequences,” she said.

Partnerships helping rebuild Spirit Lake child protection programs

By Patrick Springer, The Jamestown Sun

FARGO — Partnerships involving the Spirit Lake Tribe, Bureau of Indian Affairs and others are credited with helping to rebuild child protection programs on the reservation.Wednesday will mark the two-year anniversary of the handover of child protection and foster care services from the Spirit Lake Tribe to the BIA.The switch, made at the prodding of the North Dakota congressional delegation, came in the midst of major gaps in the safety net for children on the reservation.Among other problems, Spirit Lake children were being placed in unsafe foster homes, and suspected abuse and neglect cases were not always investigated and followed up.The BIA continues to operate the child protection programs while the tribe delivers most other social services, although the tribe hopes someday to resume full responsibility for social services.“They’re making progress,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who noted staff vacancies still pose challenges. “Getting the right people and getting them trained is the priority.”The BIA has filled a supervisory social worker position but continues to bring in staff from other reservations to run programs. It is contracting with a firm to help maintain services until positions are permanently filled.“The contract will provide some stability there,” said Lawrence Roberts, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior for Indian Affairs, who visited Spirit Lake for 2½ days last week.“These social workers will be starting in a matter of weeks,” he said, referring to the contract workers, who first must clear a background check.Social workers are in demand throughout North Dakota, complicating the search, Roberts said.Meanwhile, the Spirit Lake tribe also is filling social services positions. It recently hired a case manager and is working to fill another case manager position, said Melissa Merrick-Brady.Candidates have been interviewed, and the position should be filled soon, and the tribe’s social services will be fully staffed, she said.“When I came, we had no case managers; we were struggling,” said Merrick-Brady, who became the tribe’s social services director in July after being appointed interim director in March. “The staff was overwhelmed, overworked.”The Department of Interior is providing a grant of almost $800,000 to bolster Spirit Lake’s tribal court and guardianship programs.The grant will pay for two guardians to represent vulnerable children, and a child service and Indian child welfare presenter to appear in court, Roberts said.The training and grants will help social services better coordinate with tribal court and guardians, and help lift some of the burden on social workers, Merrick-Brady said.The collaborative approach was highlighted last week with a symposium at Candeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, when officials laid out plans for improving services at Spirit Lake.“The discussion was extremely productive,” Roberts said. “You had all the relevant players in the room,” including the tribe, BIA, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and state and local officials.“We have a lot of work to do, but I think the foundation was laid,” Roberts said.The North Dakota congressional delegation also is pursuing legislative remedies, including more stringent background checks of foster households for American Indian children.Legislation in the House and Senate would apply the same foster care standards in Indian Country that now are required elsewhere. The legislation has passed a House committee, and Hoeven expects Senate approval later this year or early next year.Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has introduced legislation to create a Commission on Native Children. If passed, she said, the bill “would help us tackle many of the challenges we’ve seen on Spirit Lake and go a long way in improving the lives of Native children.”The bill also would provide for a study into issues facing Native children, including high rates of poverty – such as unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse and few economic opportunities – and make recommendations on how to make sure Native children are better taken care of and given the opportunities to thrive.Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., agreed that coordination among service providers at Spirit Lake has improved.“We have seen an improvement in terms of communication,” he said.

You are here Sen. Murkowski reverses position on ‘Alaska exception’ to domestic violence law

By Sari Horwitz, The Washington Post

The 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was heralded by President Barack Obama as a significant step for Native American women because it allows tribal courts to prosecute certain crimes of domestic violence committed by non-Native Americans and enforce civil protection orders against them.

Before the bill passed the Senate, however, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, added Section 910, known as the “Alaska exception,” that exempted Alaska Native tribes. Murkowski argued that her provision did not change the impact of the bill since even without it, the bill pertained only to “Indian country,” where tribes live on reservations and have their own court systems. As defined by federal law, there is almost no Indian country in Alaska.

Now, after pressure from Alaska Natives, Murkowski is reversing her position and trying to repeal the provision she inserted.

The senator’s change of mind is the subject of much debate in Alaska, with state officials saying that ending the exception won’t make any difference for Alaska Natives because it only applies to Indian country and the state already takes action to protect Native women and children. Tribes and the Justice Department, on the other hand, argue that repealing the provision will have a significant impact.

Associate Attorney General Tony West, who called for the repeal of the “Alaska exemption,” says that the state needs to enforce tribal civil protection orders in cases of domestic violence and that the legislative change would send a strong message about tribal authority.

“It’s important to send a very clear signal that tribal authority means something, that tribal authority is an important component to helping to protect Native women and Native children from violence,” said West, who testified in June before a hearing in Anchorage of the Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence. “Those civil protective orders can help to save lives.”

Murkowski’s provision, which was originally an amendment she co-sponsored with Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, in 2012, was supported by state officials. Begich has also changed his position since then.

Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty and Gary Folger, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, have said that Alaska is already enforcing civil protection orders issued by tribes to try to keep one person from stalking or committing abuse or violence against another person.

But Murkowski’s “Alaska exception” reopened a contentious debate surrounding criminal jurisdiction over Alaska Native villages, and it has created confusion among law enforcement officials.

Alaska Native women protested Murkowski’s exception, and the Indian Law and Order Commission called it “unconscionable.”

“Given that domestic violence and sexual assault may be a more severe public safety problem in Alaska Native communities than in any other tribal communities in the United States, this provision adds insult to injury,” the commission said.

Troy Eid, a former U.S. attorney and chairman of the commission, said that only one Alaska Native village has a women’s shelter. He and the other commissioners were stunned by what they heard in remote Alaska Native communities, he said.

“We went to villages where every woman told us they had been raped,” Eid said. “Every single woman.”

On her Facebook page last year, Murkowski wrote: “It hurts my heart that some Alaskans may think I do not fully support protecting Native women from violence with every fiber of my being.”

“In Alaska, we have one, and only one reservation: Metlakatla,” Murkowski wrote. “The other 228 tribes have been described by the U.S. Supreme Court as ‘tribes without territorial reach.’ The expansion of jurisdiction over non-members of a tribe is a controversial issue in our state, and what works in the Lower 48, won’t necessarily work here.”

Murkowski said she still has concerns about repealing the exemption but said in a statement: “We must turn the tide of the rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse in our state.”

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.”

Johnson Legislation Helps Indian Country Adoption Tax Credit

By Mark Brown, KELO.com

Washington D.C. (KELO AM) – U.S. Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD), James Inhofe (R-OK), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) today introduced the Tribal Adoption Parity Act. The legislation ensures parents adopting American Indian and Alaskan Native children through tribal courts are treated fairly under our nation’s tax code by making it easier for adoptive parents across Indian Country to claim the full adoption tax credit for “special needs” children.

“The Tribal Adoption Parity Act will provide financial relief for families in South Dakota by making it easier for adoptive parents in Indian Country to claim the full adoption tax credit,” Johnson said. “It is unacceptable that parents who adopt an Indian child through a tribal court are prevented from accessing the financial relief that is provided to adoptive families in non-tribal areas. This bill addresses an oversight in our tax code by ensuring that adoptive parents throughout Indian Country receive fair tax treatment.”

Under current law, parents adopting a child who has been determined by a State as “special needs” can claim the full adoption tax credit regardless of their qualified adoption expenses.  Congress created the “special needs” determination to provide an added incentive for parents adopting children who might otherwise be difficult to place in adoptive homes.  In Fiscal Year 2011, 84 percent of the nearly 50,000 children adopted through public agencies were designated as having “special needs.”  Parents adopting children through tribal courts, however, are currently ineligible for the special needs adoption tax credit.  This unfortunately results in parents and children throughout Indian Country unfairly missing out on an important tax credit that would make a significant difference in their day-to-day lives.  Becoming eligible for the special needs adoption tax credit would help further reduce the financial costs associated with adoption and lessen administrative burdens.

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act that gives Indian tribes exclusive jurisdiction over custody proceedings involving Indian children within a reservation.  The special needs adoption tax credit currently fails to recognize the authority that tribal governments have over adoption proceedings of Indian children. The Tribal Adoption Parity Act would amend the Internal Revenue Code to provide fair tax treatment to parents adopting Indian children through tribal courts.  As a result, a tribal government would be permitted to designate an adoptive Indian child as having “special needs.” This legislation would ensure that families in Indian Country are treated fairly by providing the same financial relief that adoptive families currently receive across the nation.

The bill has been endorsed by organizations such as the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the Child Welfare League of America, Voice for Adoption, the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, the Donaldson Adoption Institute, and the Joint Council for International Children’s Services.

In 1996, Congress created the adoption tax credit to ease the initial financial burden for adoptive parents.  The adoption tax credit provides a tax credit of up to $10,000 and is adjusted for inflation. The credit was $12,970 for tax year 2013. Since 2003, families adopting children with “special needs” are allowed to claim the full adoption tax credit regardless of their qualified adoption expenses. The definition of “special needs” varies from state to state. Examples of factors that can qualify a child for the “special needs” determination include: age; membership in a minority or sibling group; ethnic background; medical condition; or physical, mental, and emotional handicaps.

The National Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent organization within the Internal Revenue Service, recommended the adoption tax credit be amended to recognize tribal governments in its 2012 Annual Report to Congress, which can be accessed here.

 

Prosecutors on Navajo seek to combine trials

The Associated Press

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) — Prosecutors investigating the use of discretionary funds on the Navajo Nation are seeking to try a handful of defendants together.

In a request Wednesday to tribal Judge Carol Perry, prosecutors said consolidating the trials would save tens of thousands of dollars in court expenses, jury fees and prosecution.

Perry has not ruled on the request.

Jury trials aren’t common in Navajo courts. According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on tribal courts, eight were held on the Navajo Nation between 2007 and 2011 among 51,000 civil and criminal cases. At the time, none of the tribe’s 10 district courts had set aside funds for jurors in their budgets.

Prosecutors are seeking to combine trials for two current and three former tribal lawmakers who are facing bribery charges.

TCC convention speaker blasts governments’ treatment of Natives

By Jeff Richardson, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

FAIRBANKS — A colonial attitude and lack of tribal sovereignty are contributing to an “unconscionable” record for Alaska Native justice, the head of the Indian Law and Order Commission told a Fairbanks audience on Tuesday.

Attendees watch on a television in the hallway as Keynote speaker Troy A. Eid, Chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission, speaks at the Tanana Chiefs Conference Annual Delegate and Full Board of Directors Meeting Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at the Westmark Hotel.

Attendees watch on a television in the hallway as Keynote speaker Troy A. Eid, Chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission, speaks at the Tanana Chiefs Conference Annual Delegate and Full Board of Directors Meeting Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at the Westmark Hotel.

In a fiery speech at the Tanana Chiefs Conference convention, Troy Eid blasted the state and federal governments for treating Alaska Natives like second-class citizens. The result, he said, has been an ineffective and unequal system for the state’s indigenous people.

“You are not stakeholders,” Eid told TCC delegates at the Westmark Hotel. “You are members of sovereign governments.”

Eid received a standing ovation following his remarks, which were the keynote speech for a conference with the theme “The time is now.” Eid’s independent commission was created in 2010 to review the justice system for American Indians and Alaska Natives and report its findings to President Obama and Congress.

The report, which was released last November, gave a dismal review of Alaska’s system. 

Eid, a former U.S Attorney for Colorado, called the status of Alaska Natives a “civil rights crisis.” A fourth of Alaska Native youth suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, the same rate as military veterans returning from Afghanistan. Suicide rates in Alaska rival those in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Alaska has domestic violence rates 10 times higher than the national average, and 12 times higher against women, Eid said.

He said lawmakers in Juneau and Washington could help change that.

The first step, he said, is to stop excluding Alaska Natives from federal legislation that protects Native Americans in other parts of the country. Eid dismissed the argument that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act requires that Alaska Natives be treated differently than their counterparts in the Lower 48.

“They’re laws Congress made and Congress can revisit it. … It’s not as if these are immutable, unchangeable laws,” he said.

Eid also criticized the state for battling against tribes who want local courts and police, saying that local efforts to combat crime often prove more effective. Tribal courts are now limited to family issues, such as child custody and adoption.

“It is time for the state of Alaska to stop fighting against Alaska Natives,” he said.

Following the remarks, Fort Yukon Chief Steve Ginnis asked delegates to consider a resolution that would ask the federal government to treat Alaska Natives under the same civil rights legislation as other Native Americans.

President Jerry Isaac echoed the comments.

“It’s undoubtedly a long struggle with the tribes in Alaska to be recognized in a place that they deserve,” he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who spoke by videoconference with TCC delegates, was asked if she would pledge to support such a resolution. She said ANCSA has set up a system which creates a special distinction for Alaska Natives, and that identical legislation for Alaskans and those in the Lower 48 isn’t always possible.

However, Congress needs to make sure the end result shouldn’t be unequal treatment for Alaskans, she said.

“We need to be sure that Alaska Natives are treated justly and fairly, as are all Natives,” Murkowski said.