On his trip to Alaska, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland experienced what Alaska Natives in remote villages deal with on a regular basis. He got weathered out of a flight to Huslia, a tiny community on the Koyukuk River in Interior Alaska.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who traveled with Garland, said she’s not in the habit of wishing visitors to Alaska bad weather.
“But,” she said, “it was a reminder that when something happens when there is a tragedy, or a threat or something that requires public safety intervention in a community that is not accessible, and weather shuts in, there is no plan B.”
Rain and strong winds canceled Garland’s flight on Tuesday to Huslia, a place only accessible by air and water. Garland said the challenge of Alaska weather is not something he could have fully appreciated without experiencing it for himself.
“We had a United States Marshal’s plane, we had a United States Air Force plane and still with the weather, we weren’t able to get there,” he said. “I can’t imagine what would happen in the circumstance, if there was an emergency.”
Garland was able to meet with tribal leaders in Galena, another off-the-road system community in Interior Alaska and then wrapped up his visit in Anchorage, at a roundtable hosted by the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Garland told the gathering the Justice Department recognizes that Alaska Native communities have endured persistently high levels of violence — and that women and girls have taken the brunt of that violence.
“We are here today to reaffirm the Justice Department’s commitment to working across the federal government and with the Alaska Native communities to meet these urgent challenges,” he said.
Garland backed up that commitment with a $22 million allocation for 67 tribal communities in Alaska, which will fund a range of services for victims of crime. The attorney general also announced that the Alaska Native Justice Center would receive an Alaska Special Tribal Criminal Jurisdiction Technical Assistance grant in the amount of $600,000 to help tribes build a foundation for stronger public safety and justice systems.
Alex Cleghorn, an attorney who is the Justice Center’s chief operating officer, said the money will allow tribes to implement the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act, which was inserted into the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act, known as VAWA 22.
“So what VAWA 22 does so nicely is it is an Alaska specific response to an Alaska specific problem,” he said.
And that problem is the question of whether the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act did away tribal sovereignty and Indian Country.
“What VAWA 22 does is it takes the definition of village from ANCSA and defines a territory,” said Cleghorn.
Michelle Demmert, a longtime tribal court judge, said there is a lot at stake for Alaska Natives.
“Alaska tribes have not gotten the same resources across the board when it comes to essential governmental services and it’s time for them to pony up,” Demmert said.
Demmert is a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she is the commissioner of the university’s “Not Invisible” tribal governance program. She called the meeting groundbreaking, because Garland acknowledged Alaska tribes as democratic institutions, their need for support and their importance to the nation.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the recipient of the $22 million grant. The grant will go to 67 Alaska tribal communities, and a $600,000 grant will go to the Alaska Native Justice Center.