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Senate backs measure to extend VAWA tribal provisions to Alaska

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the White House Tribal Nations Conference on December 3, 2014. Photo from VP Biden / Twitter

The Senate approved a streamlined version of S.1474, the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act, by unanimous consent this evening.

In 2013, Congress enacted S.47 to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. The historic law recognized tribal jurisdiction over non-Indian offenders.

But Section 910 excluded Alaska tribes. The bill that passed the Senate today repeals that section.

“This measure allows additional provisions for Lower 48 tribal authority in the Violence Against Women Act to finally be extended to Alaska,” outgoing Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said in a press release.

“Alaska tribes asked me to repeal Section 910 of VAWA, and I heard them loud and clear," added Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who was a co-sponsor of the original version of S.1474.

The bill now heads to the House for consideration. With just days left in the 113th Congress it's uncertain whether it will clear that chamber.

If it does, the bill will finally put Alaska tribes on the same footing as tribes in the lower 48. They will be able to arrest, prosecute and sentence certain non-Indian offenders who commit domestic violence offenses against Native women so long as they provide constitutional protections in their justice systems.

“This is a good step and I am pleased my bill has now passed the Senate and heads to the House," Begich said in his press release.

"In the new Congress beginning next month, it will be imperative to ensure that our tribal courts in Alaska receive the funding they critically need – not only for training and capacity development, but also for operations," said Murkowski.

“This bill stands up for the rights of Alaska’s Native women and families by fixing a provision that would have left them more vulnerable to domestic violence by non-Natives," added Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "That’s unacceptable, and I am glad to see this change pass the Senate.”

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Vice President Joe Biden at White House Tribal Nations Conference

The Alaska issue gained renewed focus last week when Vice President Joe Biden called for the repeal of Section 910 at the White House Tribal Nations Conference. "We need to give the nations of Alaska the same authority," he said to loud applause.

Though S.47 became law in March 2013, the tribal jurisdiction provisions don't kick in until March 2015. The timing has allowed tribes who wish to participate more time to ensure their justice systems protect the rights of non-Indian and Indian offenders.

The law authorized a pilot program and a handful of tribes gained approval from the Department of Justice to start prosecuting non-Indians prior to March 2015.

Indian Law and Order Commission Report:
A Roadmap For Making Native America Safer (November 2013)

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