In the final days of the 113th Congress, the House and Senate passed legislation that could begin a new era in the relationship between Alaska Native nations and the State of Alaska. “It is actually a momentous decision, potentially. It is one of the biggest things Congress has done for Alaska Natives in many years. I think it’s hard to overestimate how important it is,” says Troy Eid, former chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission.
The House and Senate passed a repeal of Sec. 910 of the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization of 2012, which explicitly excluded Alaska Native tribes from the provisions in the act that expanded tribal jurisdiction over certain domestic violence crimes. The legislation has gone to the president, who is expected to sign it into law.
The Senate approved S. 1474, introduced by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, as part of his Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2014, and backed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on December 9, with the House following suit on December 11.
“There was a lot of work behind the scenes to get this passed in time. It was certainly a priority for us,” says Matthew Shuckerow, a spokesman for Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who shepherded the bill through the House. The legislation Congress approved included only the Sec. 910 repeal, not the other more extensive provisions expanding tribal jurisdiction in Begich’s original bill.
Murkowski, who with Begich inserted the “Alaska exemption” into VAWA in 2012, says, “Alaska tribes asked me to repeal Section 910 of the Violence Against Women Act, and I heard them loud and clear. I’m glad that the Alaska Delegation members were able to repeal section 910 of VAWA, and thank Congressman Young for working with me to convince members of the House of this important move before Congress adjourned.” Begich had tried to remove the exemption from VAWA before it was passed in 2012.
Eid says the legislation is major. “Our report [A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer, November 2013] had called the exemption of Alaska Native women from the Violence Against Women Act ‘unconscionable.’ When you have violent crimes against women more than 10 times the national average and sexual assaults more than 12 times the national average, it is not the place to be providing watered down protections for Native women. The opposite has to be the case.
“The priority has to be to raise the levels of safety for [Alaska Native] women to an equivalent level to what we have in the United States elsewhere… And one of the strategies for doing that is to apply VAWA to domestic violence offenses that occur in the traditional areas, the homelands of Alaska Native nations.”
The implications of the repeal of Sec. 910 are far-reaching. Eid says, “What is most significant now is that each one of these Native nations will have to define a territory where VAWA can apply. That needs to be done on a government-to-government basis with the state of Alaska.
“Here’s finally a recognition… of the territoriality of these sovereigns. It’s the first time since ANSCA [Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, passed in 1971] that there’s been such a potential to focus on what the territories of these Alaska Native nations are and should be. That’s why it’s such a big deal… because that can be determined now on a government-to-government basis between the state and the various Alaska Native nations and it can begin a conversation about a whole lot of things, including tribal court development, policing, prosecution and defense services and so on.”
In the past, EId says, “There’s been a hangup that until we get the land status issues resolved, we can’t have a discussion about tribal sovereignty in Alaska. But I think that’s wrong. I think that what can happen is that you can have lines that are drawn on a territorial basis and then that territorial integrity becomes a platform for the development of tribal institutions or the enhancement of those institutions. It’s really an important development.”