Domestic violence bill passes US House with program to expand tribal powers in 5 Alaska villages

Capitol Steps
(Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

The U.S. House passed a bill to renew the Violence Against Women Act this week, with a pilot program that would expand tribal law enforcement in five Alaska Native villages.

The VAWA bill would give Alaska tribes authority to prosecute crimes of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and related offenses.

Anchorage attorney Lloyd Miller and tribes he represents have advocated to get permanent jurisdiction of this kind. Miller said it would help with rural Alaska’s public safety crisis, which is even more apparent in the COVID pandemic.

“Women are victims of domestic violence at even higher rates than the terribly high rates that were already present across rural Alaska,” he said. “Which are the highest rates in America. Make no mistake about it.”

The bill would give tribes in the pilot project criminal jurisdiction over members and nonmembers in villages, as long as the community is at least 75% Alaska Native.

The provision is similar to an amendment Alaska Congressman Don Young sponsored in 2019. That bill died in the Senate without a vote. Republicans objected to an expansion of the ban preventing domestic violence offenders from buying guns.

That could sink passage again. A section allowing transgender women access to women’s shelters is also controversial.

RELATED: VAWA bill would create limited ‘Indian Country’ for 5 Alaska tribes

This week, Young was one of 29 Republicans to vote for the bill. He was not present in the House and voted yes by proxy.

The VAWA bill goes next to the Senate, where Democratic leaders say they’re eager to pass it.

The bill doesn’t name which Alaska tribes would be in the pilot project, nor how long it would last. 

States often object to expansions of tribal powers. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office did not respond to an email asking his position on the project.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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