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VAWA jurisdiction provision poses special issue for Alaska tribes

A view of the Akiachak Native Community, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that prompted the Obama administration to include Alaska tribes in the land-into-trust process. Photo from Calista Corporation

A bill to bring Alaska tribes into the Violence Against Women Act is headed to President Barack Obama for his signature but it poses a special issue in the state.

Section 904 of S.47, the 2013 reauthorization of VAWA, recognizes tribal authority over certain non-Indian offenders who commit domestic violence offenses in Indian Country. It also recognizes tribal court protection orders against non-Indians.

S.1474, the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act, ensures that Alaska tribes are covered by those same provisions. But since Indian Country has been a contested issue in the state, the territorial boundaries of nearly every tribal government are not clearly defined.

“The state of Alaska must now work cooperatively with these federally recognized Native nations to define those territories, on a true government-to-government basis, to support tribal laws and courts to ensure that the rights of all Alaskans will be protected,” former U.S. attorney Troy Eid, who chaired the Indian Law and Order Commission, told The Washington Post.

Currently, the state recognizes the Metlakatla Indian Community as Indian Country. The tribe's reservation was exempt from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which extinguished Native title to millions of acres of Native land.

For decades, the Bureau of Indian Affairs argued that the law prohibited Alaska tribes from following the land-into-trust process. A federal judge struck down the policy and the Obama administration is finalizing a rule to reflect the new legal landscape.

The rule, however, is on hold pending an appeal by the state of Alaska. The case is before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Get the Story:
Repeal of ‘Alaska exemption’ gives tribes more power to protect Alaska Native women (The Washington Post 12/14)

Federal Register Notices:
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (July 1, 2014)
Land Acquisitions in the State of Alaska (May 1, 2014)

Relevant Documents:
Dear Tribal Leader Letter from Kevin Washburn (April 30, 2014)

District Court Decisions:
Akiachak Native Community v. Jewell (September 30, 2013)
Akiachak Native Community v. Salazar (March 31, 2013)

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

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