Voices of Alaska: Time for a peace treaty between Alaska and its Tribes

  • By Judge David Avraham Voluck and Sarah Deer
  • Thursday, July 30, 2015 9:20pm
  • Opinion

Native peoples throughout the world experience disproportionate levels of violence, the list includes suicide, homicide, sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. The United States is unfortunately no different, with the State of Alaska consistently showing the highest rates of violence in the nation. The Alaska state public safety and justice systems — as far as Native communities are concerned — are clearly broken.

Time and again this public safety and justice crisis has been the focus of numerous Federal and State blue ribbon commissions and in depth socio-economic studies; time and again expert opinion appointed from all sides of the aisle come to similar conclusions: Cultivate a paradigm shift toward local self-determination: local solutions, grown from local soil, for oftentimes uniquely local challenges.

Alaska Native tribal governments are heeding the call of their generation, mobilizing a first response to community crisis with the exercise of tribal laws sourced in the inherent traditions of respect and family health. Tribal governments are emphasizing early intervention and remedies crafted to treat not only the presenting symptoms of the day, but also the historical root causes for the trauma tearing at family and community.

Despite encouraging signs of thaw, tribal first response remains burdened by Alaska’s political and legal opposition to tribal self-government. As triage clinicians on the front lines, it is difficult to watch the waste and damage caused by this brief-case ‘Indian war’. At present we are watching the State of Alaska’s continued appeal of the Akiachak ‘Land-into-Trust’ decision.

‘Land-into-Trust’ is a regulatory process providing tribal governments the ability to petition the Secretary of the Interior to have their lands placed under federal ownership with powerful trust protections. Land-into-Trust is a central portion of the Indian Reorganization Act, a law passed with the goals of reviving tribal governments and partial restoration of the immense tribal land base lost during the United States’ westward expansion. Native American tribes throughout the nation may utilize the Land-into-Trust function to re-build governmental authority over their ancestral lands. As is often the case in contemporary Indian law, Alaska’s tribal governments were singled out to be excluded administratively from this function and purpose of the Indian Reorganization Act.

The Native Village of Akiachak joined other tribal plaintiffs in challenging this ‘Alaska exclusion rule’ as illegal and discriminatory. The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. recently agreed with the tribal plaintiffs, and struck down the Department of the Interior’s Alaska exclusion as disparate and illegal treatment of Alaska Native tribes. Following an internal review of the Federal Court’s decision and the Alaska exclusion rule, the United States decided against appeal, instead using its energy to publish regulations allowing Alaska Native tribal governments to self-determine whether to apply for federal trust protection, in common with Native American tribes throughout the Nation.

True to form, the State of Alaska did appeal the Akiachak decision, and secured an injunction preventing the Department of the Interior’s regulations from taking effect in Alaska until resolution of the lengthy appeal process. Once again we are witnessing an incessant litigation posture in opposite to tribal self-determination; once again we are witnessing the waste of precious time and resource, further imperiling life and limb. Alaska is once again presented with its historic opportunity: take on the compulsive fight to maintain an inherently broken system, or embrace the opportunities tribal trust lands can bring to the state. Trust land in Alaska can open up new streams of funding and training for rural public safety, law enforcement, victim’s services, justice and rehabilitation. Tribal governments are best positioned on the ground to service the vast needs of rural Alaska. The consolidation of tribal sovereignty over ancestral territory provides the opportunity for Alaska and its sister sovereigns to enter into real government-to-government agreements to maximize the best that both governments have to offer their citizens. There are intelligent opportunities for cross-deputization and cooperation on public safety, and continued cross-pollination to improve the delivery of justice to Alaska’s Native village communities.

The statistics encircling our families don’t lie: fighting against Alaska citizens to maintain a broken status quo is nonsensical. The prescription for healing Alaska Native families remains up on the wall for all to see; it is just a matter of time – Alaska must wisely broker a peace treaty with its Tribes and work together. The question for today’s leadership remains: If not now, when?

Judge David Avraham Voluck sits on the benches of the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, and Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government, is an adjunct professor of Indian law, and co-authored with David S. Case, “Alaska Natives & American Laws 3d. Ed.” Sarah Deer is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and a recipient of a 2014 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for her work addressing violence against Native women. She teaches law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota and serves as an appellate judge for two tribes in Minnesota. Her only goddaughter resides in Arctic Village, Alaska. Her forthcoming book is The Beginning and End of Rape, to be released in Fall 2015.

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