New provision of Violence Against Women Act empowers tribal governments to exercise jurisdiction on tribal land

A man in a small group of people holds a sign that says "Include Alaska Native women in VAWA)
Ishmael Hope, left, and other Alaska Native representatives at the 2013 Choose Respect rally in Juneau, Alaska, asking legislators to address issues with the Violence Against Women Act. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

A new provision introduced with the reinstated federal Violence Against Women Act allocates funds to empower tribal governments to exercise jurisdiction on tribal land.

On March 15, President Biden signed into law a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package that included the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The law makes it clear that Alaska tribes can act to protect women at risk in their communities.

“Alaska tribes deserve the same kind of protections and resources that other communities in Alaska and the lower 48 receive and don’t even think about it,” said Association of Village Council Presidents spokesperson Joy Anderson. “So this is really pretty historic.”

With the strong backing of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the reauthorization made it through the Senate long after it was passed by the House. She said that there is plenty of evidence that the current system is not doing the job of protecting rural Alaska women and children.

“One out of five Native young people has suffered from PTSD due to childhood exposure to violence; we know that the status quo is not working,” said Murkowski. “And when one in three Native villages lacks any law enforcement presence, we know that something has to change.”

Nationally, the act would allocate $5 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to address missing and murdered Indigenous women. But an additional $3 million was provided for some states, including Alaska, to provide for training and the needs of tribal courts. Alaska will receive the bulk of this funding through the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Subtitle.

The provision includes two sections with significant changes to tribal jurisdiction. The first part offers clarification.

“Pprior to VAWA passing, if you had asked, ‘Do Alaska tribes have criminal jurisdiction over Alaska Natives or American Indians within village boundaries?’ you probably would have gotten a variety of answers,” said Anderson of the Association of Village Council Presidents.

Congress has now provided that answer.

“What this part of the bill does is clarify that tribes do have criminal authority over Natives within their village boundaries,” Anderson said. “And that’s not dependent on whether or not there’s Indian Country.”

The bill also establishes a pilot program for tribes to exercise what’s called special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction. This recognizes the authority of tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Native people who commit certain crimes against a Native victim on tribal land. These crimes include stalking, domestic violence, and sexual assault.

The tribes now await the details on how to apply, according to Winter Montgomery, Tribal Justice Attorney for the Association of Village Council Presidents.

“We’re in the beginning process,” said Montgomery. “So when the U.S. Attorney gives us the full criteria, we’ll provide that to the tribes.”

But the pilot program does have stipulations.

“The pilot would be for five tribes. And that would include a group of tribes that could apply as a consortium,” said Anderson. “So five would initially be able to begin exercising that special criminal jurisdiction. And then each year, while VAWA is authorized, an additional five could be added each year.”

According to Murkowski’s deputy communications director, Hannah Ray, the U.S. Department of Justice is required to prioritize tribes that occupy villages where the population is predominantly American Indian/Alaska Native and that lack a permanent law enforcement presence. They must also make a determination that the tribe has adequate safeguards in place to protect the rights of defendants.

KYUK - Bethel

KYUK is our partner station in Bethel. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

Like what you just read? KTOO news stories are member supported. Support your community news source today. Donate to KTOO.

Read next

Site notifications
Update notification options
Subscribe to notifications