President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act [last] week. Finally, something bipartisan passed! American women are better protected from coast to coast - but all the way up north? Left out in the cold.
First, you should know a few facts. Native American and Alaska Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other American women.
The vastness of Alaska works against victims here. We have about 140 villages with no state law enforcement. Gov. Sean Parnell believes he can get some help to them in the next 10 years. In the meantime, they are, depending on weather, days from having a state trooper available to protect them and enforce the law.
Fifty villages have tribal or village police. The remaining 90?
Zero. No law enforcement.
It's nearly impossible to get a restraining order where there isn't a judge and you have to take a long ride on a snowmachine, boat or airplane to get to court. Escaping a scene of violence can cost you hundreds of dollars, with nowhere to go for support.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, at least 86 percent of the victimizers of American Indian and Alaska Native women are non-Native men.
These facts make the particulars of the passage of the Violence Against Women Re-authorization Act (VAWA) even more disturbing. The VAWA gave "domestic violence jurisdiction and civil protection order" powers to tribal courts. This seemed like progress for communities without conventional courts readily available to issue restraining orders, etc.
Our senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, added a "Special Rule for the State of Alaska" to the VAWA. That rule effectively bars 40 percent of American tribes from being able to protect their women. Our senator excluded 229 Alaska communities from that part of the act.
The Association of Village Council Presidents and the Aleut community of St. Paul Island spoke out against the Alaska exclusion. The Alaska Inter-Tribal Council said it "objects to anti-Alaska Tribal Provisions in the Violence Against Women Act."
The Tanana Chiefs Conference opposed it. The Native American Rights Fund led the charge against it.
The AFN wrote to the senator: "Although Alaska Natives comprise only 15.2 percent of the population of the State of Alaska, they comprise 47 percent of the victims of domestic violence and 61 percent of the victims of sexual assault."
Murkowski ignored their requests.
Let's review a little recent Alaska history. Murkowski barely won her last election. Her write-in campaign only succeeded with a lot of help from Alaska Native corporations and the Alaska Federation of Natives. Why would she give powers to Lower 48 tribes but deny them to Alaska Natives? Why would she block the ability of Alaska Natives to protect some of their most vulnerable?
Alaska's attorney general, Michael Geraghty, has become the principal agent of our governor's anti-Native rights point of view. He argued to eliminate the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects Alaska Native voters. He lobbied to exclude Alaska from the VAWA.
The state of Alaska seems not to miss an opportunity to stop tribes from asserting jurisdiction over issues like Native adoption, alcohol control, subsistence hunting and fishing, etc. At every turn the state acts to circumscribe, as tightly as possible, the sovereignty of First Alaskans.
The difference between Alaska Natives and Native Americans is all about land. The Lower 48 has reservations. In Alaska, tribes don't have reservations, so they can't base claims of jurisdiction on reservation boundaries.
The worry for Alaskans like Parnell is: If we give Natives power over themselves, where will they stop? What if they don't like a certain resource development -- they might be able to get in the way. How could we let tribes enforce laws against non-Native predators? Oh, it could be a slippery slope, so let's prevent Native communities from enforcing state law, and then we'll pretend Alaska doesn't have the money to pay for troopers to do it instead.
What's a few rapes -- as long as they happen way out there?
Last year the Obama administration took exception to the exclusion of Alaska tribes from the VAWA. At the time, a Murkowski spokesman claimed it was a "draft error." Weird that she made the same error again this year, ensuring that our Alaska Native sisters wouldn't get the same protection as Lower 48 Native Americans.
The state of Alaska has no higher responsibility than to protect its citizens from harm. While the governor walks around with a "Choose Respect" bumper sticker on his forehead, and legislators throw baskets of cash at every goofy development project that comes along, they all agree we can't afford police protection for rural Native women, and then they work to keep the tools of self-protection out of the hands of communities.
The federal government wanted to give Alaska tribes the same jurisdiction as those in the Lower 48. Unfortunately for them, Lisa Murkowski, Michael Geraghty and Sean Parnell were standing in the way.