WASHINGTON -- Across the nation, Indian tribes cheered when President Barack Obama signed a new Violence Against Women Act last week, expanding the power of tribal courts to try non-Indians for crimes of domestic violence committed on reservations.
But there was one big exception: It did not apply to most Alaskan tribes, prompting complaints from many tribal officials.
Faced with a torrent of criticism that Congress had not done enough to protect Native women, Republican Lisa Murkowski, the state’s senior senator, says she is frustrated.
She broke ranks with her party to support the new prosecutorial powers, but she said they can’t be used by most tribes in her state for one simple reason: The 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska have only one reservation, Metlakatla, in the southeast part of the state.
And, she said, Congress only intended to grant the power to Indians who live in “Indian country,” or on reservation land.
“These provisions apply to Indian country – and nothing other than Indian country. . . . I don’t think it is clear to folks back home,” Murkowski said in an interview.
The question of what makes up “Indian country” in Alaska has long been in dispute. While a federal appeals court in 1996 recognized some Alaska Native Corporation land as Indian country, the decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later.
As a result, Murkowski said, Alaskan tribes oftentimes are subject to a different set of rules.
“In Alaska, because of our laws and the interpretation by the Supreme Court, it is different,” she said. “And we might not like that and we may all need to be working to address that, but that is our reality right now.”
But many tribal officials say that they’re disappointed in Murkowski and that she didn’t do enough to make sure Alaska’s tribes could take advantage of the new law.
“I think that they could have done more,” Myron Naneng, a member of the Native Village of Hooper Bay and president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a group that represents 56 tribes in western Alaska, said in an interview. “It seems like they’re always using their standard operating language of depriving tribes in Alaska, even though they may not have reservations, of their ability to deal with their local and village issues.”
After Congress passed the law, Naneng issued a statement saying that while tribes in the Lower 48 states are celebrating, “our women are crying out for protection.”
What the change means, according to Murkowski’s office, is that only non-Indians accused of domestic violence specifically on the Metlakatla reservation can be tried in tribal court. Other non-Indians committing crimes against tribal members in Alaska can be tried in regular courts, as they always have been.
Murkowski, who’s been taking heat over the issue for the past week, said that the change has caused “a level of confusion” in Alaska.
“I am frustrated, but here’s what I will tell you: This is highly, highly emotional for so many people in Alaska, not just Native women, because far too many of us know too many who have been victims of domestic violence, whose family members, whose sisters, whose neighbors are victims,” she said. “These are raw emotions because it’s not just statistics for us in Alaska; this is very real.”