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The Wild, Wild North: Law & Order Scarce in Rural Alaska

The Indian Law and Order Commission's report, "A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer," is drawing plenty of attention among Alaska Natives.
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One place the Indian Law and Order Commission's report, "A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer," is not gathering dust is Alaska, where commissioners found rural Alaska Natives subject to grossly inadequate state-controlled law enforcement and judicial systems.

RELATED: Indian Law and Order Commission: Shelving This Report – A Huge Mistake

Many Alaska Native villages have no law enforcement or have timely access only to unarmed village public safety officers. All but one of the 229 federally-recognized tribes in the state are exempt from the provisions of the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 that gives tribes in the lower 48 more jurisdiction over crimes committed on Indian lands.

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Walt Monegan, Upik/Tlingit/Irish, president of the Alaska Native Justice Center, has served as chief of police in Anchorage and state commissioner of public safety. "About 100 of the villages have no law enforcement of any sort. No tribal police, no village police, no village public safety officers, so they have to rely on state troopers…. A police response to a major call could be delayed by days." In rural Alaska, he says, "Folks kind of cope with [crime] as best they can.

Courtesy Jefferson Keel

Jefferson Keel Tours Hooper Bay Detention Facility in Alaska.

In 1971 with passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Congress divested Alaska Native villages of their lands and put them into the private hands of regional and village corporations. "ANSCA was the last gasp of Federal 'Termination Policy….'" says the report, noting that just four years later Congress ended the policy with passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

The commissioners spent a lot of time travelling in rural Alaska, listening to concerns and suggestions in the field. Commissioner Ted Quasula says, "[When we met in Denver,] everyone who went to Alaska was very subdued, disheartened, sad. We came together real quick in saying we can't just stick our head in the sand and say, well, this is a state issue, it's not Indian county. We've got to expose what we found and hopefully others will take a hard look at it and make some change for the better.”

Whether tribes can regulate domestic affairs within their villages absent a land base is an issue the courts have not resolved, and for now, Alaska Native villages remain under the jurisdiction of Alaska's state law enforcement and judicial institutions. "It is the Commission's considered finding that Alaska's approach to criminal justice issues is fundamentally on the wrong track," says the report, which recommends that Congress amend ANSCA to make former reservation lands acquired in fee by Alaska Native villages Indian country, overturn Venetie, repeal the section of VAWA that prevents Alaska tribes from addressing domestic violence and "affirm the inherent criminal jurisdiction of Alaska Native tribal governments over their members within the external boundaries of their villages."

The state is not about to give up control of rural Alaska easily. In a December 3 letter to Commission Chairman Troy Eid, Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty describes efforts the state is making to improve public safety in the villages, such as creation of a proposed "agreement that would enable tribes to address violations of certain state laws through tribal courts. Under the agreement, when a person commits certain domestic violence, alcohol, or misdemeanor offenses, a tribal police officer (or other peace officer) could offer the person the option of having the offense addressed in tribal court through tribal civil remedies, in lieu of state criminal prosecution."

Courtesy Jefferson Keel

Hooper Bay Evidence Room

Geraghty points out that 60 percent of Alaska Natives live in urban areas. He adds, "The report highlights the admittedly dire state-wide statistics about Alaska Natives, which would include both our urban and rural populations, but I question the evidentiary basis for the rhetorical question the report raises, 'Why do these grave crime and safety issues persist in Alaska's tribal communities?' I believe the more accurate question is why do these grave crime and safety issues persist in the Alaska Native population? Indeed, public safety is a state-wide concern, not limited to rural villages."

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who has called for Senate hearings on the report, says the state has also been resistant to his Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2013. "I think the response we got from them is they see us as kind of creating sovereignty."

Restoring Indian country in Alaska is going to be a long process, if it gets done at all, says Begich. However, Eid says that even though the commission sunsets at the end of January, the nine unpaid, independent commissioners are committed to the process for the long term and will "do our best to support the recommendations and work with people in the future" to implement them.