VAWA passes U.S. Senate, tribal provisions disputed
The Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill that passed in the U.S. Senate last week on a bipartisan basis, 78-22, is receiving harsh criticism from some Western Alaska Native tribal leaders who say they weren’t consulted, and that the act excludes them from the tools they need to address crimes of rape, domestic violence and sexual assault. The bill is now awaiting action by the House of Representatives, a body that refused to pass a similar bill last session.
The landmark bill, co-sponsored by Republican Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, and Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act which was first enacted nearly two decades ago. The bill funds, strengthens and improves existing programs that assist victims and survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.
“There are few pieces of legislation that have such a direct, tangible and immediate impact on countless Alaskans,” said Murkowski. “This act empowers the victims who suffer from domestic abuse, dating and sexual violence, and it empowers those on the frontlines of law enforcement and caregivers in the largest American cities to the smallest Alaska rural village.”
But Myron Naneng Sr., president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a Native nonprofit that represents 56 federally-recognized tribes in Western Alaska, said he was “deeply disappointed” by certain provisions in the bill that exclude all but one Alaska tribe from asserting expanded jurisdiction over protective orders under federal law.
One such provision under Section 905, gives all U.S. tribes with reservations the power to prosecute non-Native people for domestic-violence offenses that occur within the boundaries of their reservations. In Alaska there is only one reservation — Metlakatla in Southeast. Senator Murkowski placed special language in VAWA to ensure that Metlakatla was treated no different than a Lower 48 reservation, even though it is in Alaska, said Murkowski spokesperson Matthew Felling.
That provision concerns Naneng because it thereby excludes all other Alaska tribes without reservation status.
“We objected to the proposed language, to no avail. It singles out Alaska Native women as less deserving of protection and creates a separate class of people,” he stated in a Feb. 12 press release. “Alaska tribes get singled out for separate treatment all the time and needs to stop,” he said. Naneng pointed to the many challenges rural villages in the Western Alaska region face due to their remote location. More than half of Native women in the region have been sexually assaulted, he said. Emergency calls can take up to 24 hours for a response depending upon weather conditions. The closest state court to those villages is in Bethel, which is accessible only by air, boat or snow machine, and airfare can cost up to $800 round-trip, depending upon the villages’ location, said Naneng.
“This legislation will greatly impact our ability to safeguard our women and children. We need more tools, not less to protect our families,” he said.
“Today is not the day to fight that fight, but I will take it up again soon from my seat on the Indian Affairs Committee in the Senate,” said Senator Mark Begich, speaking on the floor of the Senate last week. While acknowledging the fact that unfortunately none of the expanded criminal jurisdiction applies to Alaska Native tribes, except Metlakatla, Begich promised that the Senate would get to consider another bill he authored, the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act, in the near future. That bill establishes small demonstration projects in a handful of federally-recognized Alaska villages, enabling tribes to take action locally to address issues within their boundaries such as physical and sexual abuse, and also drug and alcohol abuse.
On the Senate floor Begich also enumerated the alarmingly high rates of physical and sexual abuse, and drug abuse suffered by Native Alaskans throughout his state, the need for expanding and funding services and improving enforcement, and for greater local control.
Some of his Republican colleagues had tried to strip the Senate bill of expanded tribal authority over domestic violence in Indian Country altogether, said Begich. “Why are we debating this? One out of every three Native American women have suffered rape, physical violence or stalking, and yet some members want to debate the rights of their abusers.”
Murkowski also included language in VAWA to confirm that all tribes in Alaska have the power to issue domestic violence protective orders against their members, and that includes the power to exclude tribal members from Indian lands, said Felling.
“This is an improvement on the current VAWA which does not expressly allow tribal courts in Alaska to issue domestic violence protection orders at all,” he said. The senator also included language in VAWA to reestablish the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission as a permanent forum for the tribes and the state and the federal governments to work on rural safety issues, he said.
The bill’s reauthorization was hailed in the Lower 48 by Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians and a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma during his State of the Indian Nations address at the Newseum in Washington D.C. last Tuesday. He urged the House to follow suit, quoting statistics that show that almost 60 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives are married to men who are non-Native. Such suspects in crimes can not be prosecuted in tribal courts. Local authorities other than tribal officials often lack resources to respond to the crimes and federal authorities also have declined to prosecute many of the crimes, he said.