U.S. Senate Considers Law Enforcement Gaps in Native Alaska

In Washington, D.C.  the Senate Indian Affairs Committee yesterday reviewed a controversial report on Native American law-and-order that portrays the high rates of violence in rural Alaska, particularly against Native women and children, as a national disgrace. While Alaska’s senators agreed the gaps in law enforcement are deplorable, the long-standing dispute over tribal jurisdiction in the state hangs over the search for solutions.

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One of the witnesses, Anvik resident Tami Truett Jerue, told the Senate panel she has the routine concerns every working parent has, though as a resident of a Native village off the road system, she has more to contend with.

“But I also worry about whether my children, my nieces, nephews or relatives are going to be hurt today. And in Anvik I consider us to be a fairly safe community,” she said. But she says it’s a sign something is wrong “when I have to have a conversation with my 14-year-old son when he gets out his snowmachine and goes to school in the morning, ‘Hey I want you to come home early today, the booze came in on the plane.’”

Jerue works for the Anvik Tribal Council, and came to Washington representing Tanana Chiefs Conference, an association of  Interior tribes. She endorsed the findings in the report of the Indian Law and Order Commission – including the controversial conclusion that Congress should amend federal law to clearly recognize Indian Country throughout Alaska. Without full self-government, she says communities like hers will continue to suffer, even though tribal courts are doing the best they can.

“They’ve come up with some excellent ideas, but we were then hindered by state intervention and/or lack of.”

The congressionally-chartered Indian Law and Order Commission produced its report in November. It catalogues the high crime rate Indian communities in the Lower 48 endure, but says the dangers are more severe in Alaska. Commission Chairman Troy Eid told the Senate committee the state is clinging to a colonial model that should give way to greater tribal self-governance and the kind of Indian Country powers that tribes have on reservations in the Lower 48.

“The system in Alaska is not serving the people there, because the state can never police it from afar,” Eid said. “When we were up there last time in December, the leaders came to us and said, ‘We just had a 12 year old girl raped, it took them four days to come out to our village.’ That’s not acceptable in our country.”

The Parnell Administration raised objections to the commission last year, saying the state and Alaska Natives themselves rejected the reservation concept with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. State Attorney General Michael Geraghty wrote that Alaska recognizes tribal authority over certain civil matters but maintains that, absent reservations, tribes don’t have criminal jurisdiction, even over their own members.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski asked Eid why the report recommends that Alaska essentially recreate the reservation model when there’s a constant stream of news stories suggesting law enforcement isn’t working well on reservations either.

“I’m not suggesting that the Alaska situation is acceptable. It is absolutely not,” she said. “But do we want to take what many would acknowledge is a failed or a failing system and then just say that’s the Alaska answer?”

Eid says Alaska doesn’t need reservations for tribes to govern themselves in their own territories. And the report argues tribal law enforcement would be more effective and less costly than what the state is doing now.

Murkowski says the report’s chapter on Alaska focuses too much on the Indian Country question. While that remains a hot-button issue, Murkowski says tribes are working with the state to construct public safety buildings in villages, and tribal courts are issuing domestic violence protective orders that the state is enforcing. She says all sides should work harder for that kind of co-operation.


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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.