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Know the West

New law protects Alaska Native women

The ability to prosecute domestic violence may be the first step toward creating Indian Country in Alaska.


“Every woman you’ve met today has been raped,” a Galena, Alaska, woman told representatives from Indian Law and Order Commission in 2012. “All of us. I know they won’t believe that in the lower 48, and the state will deny it, but it’s true.”

Galena, Alaska — a Native village of less than 500 people on the Yukon River — is by no means unique. Alaska Native women comprise 19 percent of the state population, but 47 percent of its reported rape victims. And in places like Galena that are only accessible by boat or plane, state troopers from Fairbanks may take days to arrive, even after a rape has been committed. Like many villages, Galena has no law enforcement of its own, and Alaska provides only one trooper for every million square miles or so.

Desa Jacobsson makes a point as she speaks to Sen. Lisa Murkowski during the Choose Respect march in Anchorage, Alaska on Thursday, March 28, 2013. More than 140 communities across the state sponsored Choose Respect events in the ongoing effort to raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault. (AP Photo/Anchorage Daily News, Bill Roth)

That’s why Alaskan tribes were outraged last year when Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, inserted an “Alaska exemption” into the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The exemption prevents Alaskan tribes from prosecuting certain domestic violence crimes perpetrated on their land, including crimes committed by non-Natives. The reason, Murkowski said, was that there’s almost no federally-designated “Indian Country” in Alaska. How could a law allowing people to prosecute crimes on tribal land be upheld if there was no tribal land?

After the Indian Law and Order Commission presented a scathing report last year, though, Murkowski changed her position. Earlier this month, she convinced both chambers of Congress to pass a bill repealing the Alaska exemption and allowing Alaskan tribes to draw territorial boundaries within which the Violence Against Women Act could be upheld.

On Dec. 18, President Obama signed it into law. Not only does the law protect thousands of Alaska Native women, it also lays the groundwork for some of the biggest changes that Alaska Natives have seen for generations. 

“For many decades, (federal) laws that affect Native nations around the country have exempted Alaska,” says Troy Eid, chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission. Now, he explains, the boundaries that will be drawn around Native lands for enforcing crimes against women could also be used for “other kinds of laws, like the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 (from which Alaska was exempted) … or crimes involving children.” That, Eid says, is the big, long-term change. 

In the short term, the new law will help the 129 Alaskan tribes without tribal courts to develop them, and for the 100 with tribal courts to improve them. Murkowski says she’s seeking federal funds to help with the process.

Eid is “cautiously optimistic”
that this could be the first step toward developing more tribal sovereignty in Alaska, perhaps by creating federally-recognized Indian Country, which would give Alaska Natives more control over their traditional lands. Outgoing Republican Gov. Sean Parnell was an outspoken opponent of such measures, but new Independent Gov. Bill Walker and his Native Alaskan Democratic Lieutenant, Byron Mallott, have made it one of their top priorities.

Walker’s tenure “has the potential for being a significant break from at least a decade of hostile state administrations towards aspirational tribal governance issues,” Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, told Alaska Dispatch News.

For now, though, the inclusion of Alaska Natives into the full Violence Against Women Act is a huge step forward. Though the timeline for implementation isn’t yet clear, it shouldn’t be long before tribes will be able to prosecute domestic violence crimes in villages like Galena, no matter who commits them. “And once a tribe is able to handle a domestic violence case,”
Eid says, “it lays the groundwork for so many other reforms.”


Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.