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Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A provision of a U.S. Senate bill would expand tribal court jurisdiction for up to 30 Alaska tribes as part of a pilot program aimed at addressing high rates of violence.

The provision added by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is part of a bipartisan measure that would renew the Violence Against Women Act.

The last time the act was renewed, it allowed for tribes in the Lower 48 to prosecute domestic violence cases on their reservations, regardless of defendants’ race or tribal membership.

More than two dozen tribes exercise those powers, with the U.S. Justice Department providing grants and technical assistance, Alaska Public Media reported on Tuesday.

Murkowski said the change the bill would make, related to Alaska, is limited.

“It is just a recognition that in order to provide for a level of safety in our communities, we had to look to some alternatives,” she said.

Tribes across Alaska have courts that decide child protection, adoption cases, bootlegging and other cases, but their power over non-members is limited. Just one of Alaska’s 229 tribes is on a reserve.

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The Senate reauthorization bill relies on census tracts to define the territory of jurisdiction. It would leave it up to the Justice Department to decide if a tribe meets eligibility criteria for the program.

Speaking in support of the reauthorization, on December 16, Murkowski said, “The rates of violence experienced by Alaska Natives are particularly horrific and statistics should shock us all. I repeat them a lot and they still shock me.

“According to a report prepared by the Indian Law and Order Commission, Alaska Native women are overrepresented – by nearly 250 percent – among female domestic violence victims,” Murkowski said.

Pictured: Senator Murkowski during oversight hearing on April 28, 2021

She went on to say, “just to put it into context here, a couple of years ago, an investigation that was conducted by the Anchorage Daily News determined that one in three Native communities in rural Alaska have no local law enforcement physically present, leaving Native women and children at greater risk of violence.

“Think about that for just a minute, to live in a community where there’s no one to turn to, no law enforcement presence to turn to. Maybe you’re able to share your story with a local health aide there, but that’s as far as you can go. Beyond that, hardly any Alaska Tribes, have the tools they need to address violence in their communities,” Murkowski said.

A renewal bill with a similar program added by Alaska Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young passed the House last year.

Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said his staff was reviewing the bills.“We’re going to make sure that everybody’s constitutional rights are protected,” he said. “At the same time, we’re determined to work with any and all groups in the state of Alaska — to protect victims, to protect individual Alaskans, regardless of whether in urban Alaska, rural Alaska, Native, non-Native, and tribal, non tribal.”

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Indian Country Today National Correspondent Joaqlin Estus contributed to this story.

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