VAWA Special Domestic Violence Jurisdiction for Alaska Indian Tribes Is Essential

Tami Truett Jerue, Executive Director, AKNWRC

Only one of the 229 tribes in Alaska are eligible to exercise special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction (SDVCJ) under the Violence Against Women’s Act of  2013 (VAWA 2013). Late last year, Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act, S. 2616. The Act will expand the jurisdiction provided under the VAWA 2013 to Alaska Native villages on a pilot basis under certain  conditions.

“Far too many communities in Alaska know what it feels like to lack any means to seek help or justice for a crime of domestic violence or sexual assault because their village lacks advocacy services and law enforcement. This bill aims to change that and empowers villages to develop local solutions to problems,” said Senator Murkowski.

When it comes to domestic violence, Alaska Native women are overrepresented by 250 percent—that means our sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins, and loved ones are being violated at rates that are unacceptable anywhere, in any state. Alaska’s tribes need to be able to exercise the special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction to address our staggering statistics. Alaska tribes, with support from the federal government, can be effective partners with the State to address Alaska’s rural public safety crisis.

The House of Representatives included a pilot project provision in the VAWA Reauthorization Act, H.B. 1585, passed in March 2019. Similar to VAWA 2013, H.B. 158 recognized the inherent authority of Alaska tribes  to exercise SDVCJ and defined Indian Country for the purposes of exercising this jurisdiction  to: “(1) Alaska Native-owned Townsites, Allotments, and former reservation lands acquired in fee by Alaska Native Village Corporations pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (43 U.S.C. 33) and other lands transferred in fee to Native villages; and“(2) all lands within any Alaska Native village with a population that is at least 75 percent Alaska Native.”

Senator Murkowski’s bill takes a different approach to defining jurisdiction. While she agrees the population has to be 75% Alaska Native, rather than use the term “Indian country,” she defines jurisdiction to a “village,” which means the Alaska Native Village Statistical Area covering all or any portion of a Native village (as defined in section 3 of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (43 U.S.C. 1602)).  

The bill would also expand covered crimes to include crimes of sexual violence, sex trafficking, stalking, assault of law enforcement or corrections officers, obstruction of justice, and assault of a law enforcement or correctional officer, any crime against a child, and any crime involving the possession, transportation, or sale of alcohol or drugs where that possession, transportation, or sale is prohibited by an applicable Federal, State, or Tribal law. Eligible tribes must meet the required criteria, including having a community be predominantly Native.

This bill would provide real change to our tribal communities, especially if there is a funding mechanism tied to this bill or implementing tribes are permitted to use funding under the Office on Violence Against Women grant programs. This bill is essential for the safety of Alaska Native women