Federal Laws Can Make a Difference in the Disproportionate Rate of Violence Against Native American and Alaska Native Women

By Michelle Demmert, Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and Klawock Cooperative Association, Formerly Policy Director, Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center

Point 3: The Pro Bono Work To Empower and Represent (POWER) Act

The late Shirley Moses, former Director of Healing Native Hearts Coalition speaking at the May 2018 MMIW Walk in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Photo courtesy of AKNWRC.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis that is devastating American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) can be attributed, in part, to the failed laws and policies of the federal and state governments. When our communities, specifically women, are targeted far too often, it results in a missing woman or an unnatural death. Recent laws have acknowledged the importance of federal program coordination. Savanna’s Act, named to honor Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation who was murdered in 2017, is one example. The law aims to improve MMIW data collection and access that directs the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) to review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. Savanna’s Act requires that the USDOJ develop and host training for state, Tribal, and federal law enforcement officers. The Anchorage missing and murdered Indigenous persons (MMIP) Liaison and Alaska U.S. Attorney’s offices have worked with stakeholders to create Tribal plans and a protocol for law enforcement. This law continues to hold promise to reduce the numbers that make Alaska stand out as one of the most violent states for AI/AN women.

Another recently passed law, the Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent (POWER) Act (Public Law 117-252), may also assist with improving the effects of failed policies. The POWER Act has a threefold purpose:

  1. to encourage attorneys to provide pro bono legal services to survivors of sexual and domestic violence,
  2. to require every federal district court to hold an annual summit regarding the Act; and
  3. every two years, to host an event in areas with high numbers of American Indians and Alaska Natives on issues of importance to our communities.

Since its initial enactment in 2018, there have been 248 pro bono summits held across the nation, reaching more than 61,000 attorneys with the encouragement to provide pro bono (for free) legal services. Thanks to senator Dan Sullivan (AK), who sponsored the bill in the Senate, and representative Mary Sattler Peltola (AK), who sponsored the bill in the House, the act passed both houses of Congress and became law on December 20, 2022.

Tribal communities should be specifically targeted for when measuring the overall success of the law. We should go beyond the “legal summits” required and encourage active participation in AI/AN communities with the highest rates of gender-based violence whose members often do not have legal representation.

The Legal Services Corporation found:

“The filing of a protective order [is] one of the two most effective tools for stopping domestic violence, second only to leaving the abuser. An academic study by two economists found that increased access to civil legal aid was one of three major factors correlating with the 21% decline in the incidence of domestic violence from 1993 to 1998. The economists concluded that civil legal aid is more effective than access to shelters or counseling services in reducing domestic violence. The Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice found that “obtaining a permanent protection order results in a statistically significant reduction (80%) in police-reported physical violence in the subsequent 12 months.”1

Studies by the USDOJ and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that nearly 25% (or 1 in 4) of women suffer from domestic violence. However, many of these women do not have access to legal representation. Among Alaska Natives, some studies have found while Alaska Natives comprise 19% of the population, they are 48% of sexual assault victims and are overrepresented as domestic violence victims at 250%. The National Network to End Domestic Violence, a nonprofit organization, found that in 2017, 11,441 requests for services—including legal representation, emergency shelter, transportation, child care, and more—were made but could not be provided because programs lacked the resources to meet victims’ needs.2 There is no similar data for AI/AN specifically. However, we know that “[t]he majority of American Indian and Alaska Native victims have experienced violence at the hands of at least one interracial perpetrator in their lifetime—97 percent of female victims and 90 percent of male victims.”3

Sen. Dan Sullivan (AK), one of the sponsors of the bill in 2017 and 2022, stated:

      “Many who are suffering from domestic abuse and sexual assault can’t afford
       attorneys to file charges or, importantly, to even protect themselves and their
       families, their kids. Here is the big irony: When someone is charged with a
       crime—say a sexual assault crime, say an accused rapist—that person gets
       a Sixth Amendment right to counsel under the U.S. Constitution.
       So, the perpetrator gets the right to a lawyer. What does the victim get?
       The victim gets nothing-- no attorney, no right to an attorney. Think about that.
       An accused rapist gets a lawyer under the Constitution and the victim gets nothing.”

House of Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola (AK) commented that the legal system is flawed:

      “Survivors of intimate, partner-related violence and intimidation often lack the
       legal resources they need to protect themselves from future injury.
       In this paradigm, victims are too often unable to escape the perpetrators of
       their trauma-to devastating effect.
       ...As one of my first legislative actions in Congress, I was proud to introduce
       the POWER Act. This bill removes the sunset on the POWER Act and will
       ensure more victims can protect themselves from further violence and intimidation.”

While the benefits of the POWER Act are yet to be fully understood for AI/AN Tribes, there is hope that another avenue for legal assistance will be available as we improve services to survivors. During consultations with the Office for Victims of Crime and the Office on Violence Against Women, Tribal leaders should request parity for legal aid programs with their non-Indian counterparts. Until we have equal access to available resources, improvements to gender-based laws may fall short, otherwise. 

Participants of the May 2018 MMIW Walk in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Photo courtesy of Janelle Chapin, AKNWRC.

1 n8ve.net/lksUrFiq
2 n8ve.net/MjSGjj2w
3 Andre B. Rosay, “Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men,” NIJ Journal 277 (2016), n8ve.net/qtG7bNnR