December 19, 2014
HELENA, Mont. — President Barack Obama has signed into law a repeal of Section 910, the provision in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA) that prevented all but one of the 229 Alaska Native villages from ever exercising the special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction that the law had restored to other tribes. Another key development last night included the announcement of a final rule enabling the Department of the Interior to take land into trust for tribes in Alaska. The previous rule excepted all but one Alaska Native tribe from this process.
“We are celebrating these victories with our sisters and tribal nations in Alaska,” said Jana L. Walker, senior attorney and director of the Indian Law Resource Center’s Safe Women, Strong Nations project. “These are strides forward, clearing the way for further reforms still needed to respond to violence and restore safety for Alaska Native women.”
Last week, the Senate and House approved S. 1474 without objections. Senators Mark Begich (D-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Representative Don Young (R-AK) were instrumental in securing support for the bill. The President signed the bill on December 18, 2014.
The United States took an historic step toward restoring safety to American Indian and Alaska Native women with reauthorization of VAWA almost two years ago. However, much of the expanded tribal jurisdiction is limited to Indian country, a legal term that has been interpreted to exclude almost all of Alaska. For instance, Section 904 of VAWA restores special criminal jurisdiction to Indian nations over certain non-Indians who commit domestic and dating violence against Native women, but the restoration applies only to such crimes committed in Indian country. As a result, this life-saving provision has been viewed as having very limited application in the Alaska Native villages most in need of an improved justice system.
"While VAWA was a victory for many Indian nations in the lower 48 states," said Lucy Simpson, Executive Director of the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, "many people are not aware that Section 910, titled the ”Special Rule for the State of Alaska,” and the Indian country clauses in Section 904, made key protections inapplicable to all but one Alaska Native village – in other words, 40% of all federally recognized tribes were excluded." This was devastating for Alaska Native women, who suffer rates of domestic violence up to ten times higher, and physical assault victimization rates 12 times higher, than the rest of the country.
In November 2013, the Indian Law and Order Commission released its "Roadmap for Making Native America Safer." The report found safety problems in tribal communities around the country to be severe, but the worst being in Alaska. The Commission strongly recommended reforms to improve public safety and support for local village control, including repeal of Section 910 and other actions to break down the legal barriers posed by uncertainty or controversy about whether lands owned by Alaska Native tribes are considered Indian country. According to the Commission, “continuing to exempt the State from national policy change is wrong” and “sets Alaska apart from the progress that has become possible in the rest of Indian country.” The Commission emphasized that the public safety issues in Alaska are not just Alaska’s issues, but national issues.
Native women applaud the repeal of Section 910 as an action that will help save lives in Alaska, but they urge that much more needs to be done. Lynn Hootch, Co-Chair of the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women, said the amendment clarifies that, under Section 905, all Alaska Native villages can issue and enforce protection orders involving any person within their authority. Hootch, who has served on the Tribal Council for the Village of Emmonak in Alaska and is a Board Member of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, notes that many Alaska Native villages are without any law enforcement. “The life of a woman often depends on the ability of her local village to provide timely help and protection,” she said.
“The inconsistent recognition of tribal authority, coupled with the poor response from state law enforcement, has created an extremely dangerous environment for Alaska Native women,” said Tamra Truett Jerue, an Athabascan from Interior Alaska and member of the Alaska Native Women's Resource Center. She added that "restoring the legal authority of villages to respond effectively to crimes and make decisions regarding the safety, health, and well-being of residents is critical for addressing the issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, homicide, suicide, and substance abuse/alcohol-related deaths."
A further victory occurred on Thursday with the announcement of a final rule that will allow the Department of the Interior to accept land into trust for all federally recognized Alaska Native tribes. This marks a historic change in federal policy. The regulation was developed after the U.S. District for the District of Columbia ruled in Akiachak Native Community v. Salazar that the exclusion of Alaska tribes from the land into trust process was unlawful. Placing Alaska Native lands into trust will make them subject to federal criminal laws protecting Native women, and tribes may be able to better respond to violence against Native women.
Much work is needed to create a more just legal system where both Alaska Native and American Indian tribes can enforce their laws and protect Native women. “Federal and state governments have long supported laws limiting Alaska tribal governments' ability to protect their citizens, including their women and children, from violence,” said Juana Majel Dixon, Co-Chair of the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women and Traditional Legislative Counsel for the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians. “It’s time for such discriminatory practices to end. These changes are a good start.”
About the National Congress of American Indians
Contact: Sarah Beccio, Communications Associate
(202) 466-7767, email: email@example.com
The National Congress of American Indians is the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, and is dedicated to ending the epidemic of violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women. In 2003, NCAI created the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women to address and coordinate an organized response to national policy issues regarding violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women. (www.ncai.org).
About the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
Contact: Lucy Simpson, Executive Director
(406) 477-3896, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, Inc. is a non-profit organization that provides technical assistance and training, policy development and system management, materials, and resource information on violence against Native women and the development of tribal strategies and responses to end the violence. (www.niwrc.org).
About the Alaska Native Women's Resource Center
Contact: Shirley Moses, Chairwoman
(907) 978-1852; email: email@example.com
The Alaska Native Women's Resource Center is a partnership between Alaska Native women's village-based advocates and the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center. The AKNWRC works to end violence against Alaska Native women through an Alaska Native specific technical assistance and training project focused on providing resources to tribes on laws, policies, and available funding and assisting villages to develop local plans for responding to these crimes.
About the Indian Law Resource Center
Contact: Ginny Underwood, Communication Director
(405) 229-7210, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Founded in 1978, the Indian Law Resource Center is a non-profit organization established and directed by American Indians and dedicated to protecting the rights of Indian and Alaska Native nations and other indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. The Center’s Safe Women, Strong Nations project works to end violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women and to strengthen Indian nations. (www.indianlaw.org).