Attendees of a government-to-government consultation look on as kuspuks were displayed during the Violence Against Women Tribal Consultation held this week in Anchorage. (Courtesy Photo / Lisa Houghton)

Attendees of a government-to-government consultation look on as kuspuks were displayed during the Violence Against Women Tribal Consultation held this week in Anchorage. (Courtesy Photo / Lisa Houghton)

Top Justice Dept. official reflects on Alaska’s unique concerns

Help for Juneau tribal court, emergency rural services may result from aid touted at Anchorge summit

Allison Randall is spending most of this week listening to scores of Alaska Native leaders and tribal members describe various problems they’re having with the U.S. government, and being challenged what she as a high-ranking official in that government is hearing and able to do in response.

During a break Thursday at the midpoint of a three-day gathering in Anchorage about those issues, she said a visit to Juneau on Tuesday is an example of the more direct tribal interaction her department is attempting — at least while the political situation allows.

“We heard so much about the need to respect tribal sovereignty,” she said in a phone interview. “That’s a priority for my office and for me personally.”

Randall, acting director of the Justice Department’s office of violence on women, was part of a delegation that visited Southeast Alaska communities Monday and Tuesday to talk to regional tribal members before delivering an opening address at the Wednesday start of the Government-to-Government Violence Against Women Tribal Consultation, an annual event that for the first time is being held in Alaska.

During her interview she said she met in Juneau with members of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska where efforts such as partnering with AWARE to help domestic violence survivors, and “having a healing and wellness court that is respiriting families and restoring the community” were among the unique topics compared to discussions elsewhere. Other issues raised here and elsewhere in the region included challenges of being dependent on ferries and small planes, and challenges responding to fire and medical emergencies in remote areas.

“Not only is Alaska unique, but every Alaska village is unique,” Randall said.

It’s for that reason Randall repeatedly emphasized a theme of her presentation at the summit, occurring on the same day the Justice Department announced $246 million in grants to American Indian and Alaska Native communities to improve public safety and serve crime victims. She said distributing the funds directly to tribes — instead of through state governments and other entities that were the cause of much discontent during the summit — ensures they can be used specifically for purposes such as the Tlingit and Haida court.

“A huge piece (of our agenda) is on supporting tribes and their exercising criminal jurisdiction, and ensuring if we’re doing something that impact tribes it’s what they’re asking,” she said.

Besides the needs discussed regionally “the funding is really flexible…for many tribes it’s for transitional housing for emergency shelter, often for victims services, but some do also fund law enforcement and courts,” Randall said.

A mixed verdict on federal actions in modern times was delivered at the summit by Gloria Burns, an elected tribal council member of the Ketchikan Indian Community

“There’s been a lot of conversation about what it looks like if we could all have continuous funding and how we could build our programs,” she said. “I want to say that that is one of the most important things that as tribes would like for you to take away. Ketchikan has been blessed to receive grants since 1997. The kind of stability that provides, to be able to provide for the safety of our people when it comes to direct services and relocating people and getting them to safety and supporting the shelter that is not tribe driven, is amazing.”

But Burns was far more critical when asserting “every tribe in our nation, every sovereign nation deserves to have that kind of security,” noting a key element of that is “noncompetitive base funding for all these tribes.” Furthermore, in addition to tribes currently having to compete for some resources, she drew loud applause from attendees for declaring to Justice Department officials “the people that you are here representing have failed their trust and treaty responsibility to us by allowing a public law to even exist” that intrudes on tribal sovereignty.

“It is a failed experiment on the backs of the people in this room and our families out in the rest of the United States,” she said. “You can look through and see the staggering statistics of missing and murdered Indigenous people and you know we are exactly where the government intended us to be. This is exactly what colonization was supposed to do to us.”

She continued: “These are the systems that have been broken down. We had functioning, amazing tribal governments prior to contact that took care of our people, that understood the value and the wealth of our children and our women. And now we are struggling each and every one of us to find those financial resources to make that something that we can take care of our people.”

Also testifying Thursday was Catherine Edwards, Tlingit and Haida’s third vice president. She talked about the struggle of a loved one in obtaining a protective court order or space at a local shelter, before applying her case to the larger issues facing Natives in Southeast Alaska.

“We serve 22 villages,” she said. “Three urban populations. All of them hubs for violence against women…Southeast Alaska is made up of islands that are not connected by roads. The only way in and out is by boat or plane. Some of our communities will see the last ferry for months very soon because of budget cuts from the state. This makes getting goods and services in the communities even more difficult. Can you imagine having to flee violence? Almost impossible.”

Edwards echoed comments by Burns and other Alaska Natives about outside governments being ineffective and infringing on tribal efforts to cope with police and other emergencies.

“I have a dream that one day my daughter’s granddaughters will live in a world where they won’t have to walk to their cars at night with keys between their knuckles and that we can use our tribal funds for things like education and community gardens instead of women’s self-defense classes, and security cameras for women,” Edwards said.

While the most recent federal grant funding is expected to be allocated to tribes by October, Randall acknowledged future funding may be affected by the November election. Republicans are expected to take control of at least one of the chambers in Congress and likely oppose much of President Joe Biden’s agenda leading up to the 2024 election.

“In terms of funding next year we are dependent on Congress and the appropriations committees,” she said. At the same time “there’s a lot that we can do as an administration regardless of Congress” such as simplifying the process for tribes to apply for available federal funds.

The summit, which has consisted mostly of testimony from Indigenous people from various tribes throughout the country, is scheduled to conclude at midday Friday and can be heard by members of the public by registering for free at https://www.ovwconsultation.org/Attend/Register.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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