‘Don’t tie our hands’: Proposal would give 30 Alaska tribes the power to prosecute violence in villages

person appears on a video screen in an ornate room with a yellow curtain.
Michelle Demmert testified via video link in the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee room. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska tribes could gain the power to prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault in Native villages as part of a pilot program under consideration in the U.S. Senate.

The program would have Alaska tribes fill some of the law enforcement gaps in remote communities where victims don’t have ready access to a police force or State Troopers.

Michelle Demmert, policy director of the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Wednesday in vivid terms what that lack of law enforcement looks like.

“In a homicide case, it took 11 hours for law enforcement to appear. The 13-year-old victim’s body laid outside across the street from the family’s home,” Demmert testified. “Sometimes these crime scenes are like this for days on end. We have lost our loved ones and are powerless to do anything more than sit vigil, protecting a crime scene until law enforcement arrives.”

Demmert also told of a violence victim who was stuck in a village in the Interior for 17 days, needing medical care. Bad weather prevented Troopers from coming to investigate.

“The circumstances described are repeated throughout remote Alaska,” she said. “They will continue until our local governments have the authority and resources they need to address public safety.”

Alaska often ranks as the nation’s most dangerous state for women, and Alaska Native women suffer crime rates much higher than the state average, Demmert told senators.

“Don’t tie our hands,” she said, pleading for Congress to give Alaska tribes law enforcement powers.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski authored the pilot program. It would give 30 Alaska tribes the kind of jurisdiction Lower 48 tribes have over domestic violence and related crimes. The tribes would be able to prosecute anyone – Native or not – who commits such crimes against a tribal member in their villages. The number of participating tribes could be expanded beyond 30. 

No one at the hearing spoke against the idea. Murkowski said she believes the U.S. attorney general will work with tribes to ensure tribal justice systems can protect a defendant’s rights. Murkowski acknowledged that the idea of tribes prosecuting violent crime makes some people uncomfortable. It’s especially controversial when the tribe prosecutes a non-member, as federal law allows to protect domestic violence victims who are tribal members.

“What more do we need to do?” Murkowski asked an advocate for tribal jurisdiction. “Because I’ve got some convincing (to do) with some colleagues who are not sure that this is going to be ‘too experimental,’ that this justice will be too experimental. My response right now is, in many cases, there is no justice. That is the experiment that is happening: no justice.”

She drafted the program to be included in a bill to renew the Violence Against Women Act. Alaska Congressman Don Young has supported a similar program for five Alaska tribes in a VAWA renewal bill that passed the House in March.

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

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her atlruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Lizhere.

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