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Dispute Over VAWA Tribal Authority Provision Prompts Senator To Reverse Stance

Dispute Over VAWA Tribal Authority Provision Prompts Sen. To Reverse Stance

August 5, 2014 — Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is trying to repeal a provision she added to the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (PL 113-4) that bars Alaska Native tribes from prosecuting certain domestic violence crimes committed by non-Native Americans, the Washington Post reports (Horwitz, Washington Post, 8/2).

President Obama signed the reauthorization into law in 2013. Among other provisions, the law grants authority to tribal courts to hear cases involving non-Native Americans accused of assaulting Native American women on reservations (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/8/13). The provision also allows tribal courts to enforce civil protections against such individuals.

However, Murkowski added Section 910, also called the "Alaska exception," before the bill was approved by Congress to exempt Alaska Native tribes. At the time, she said the provision did not notably change the bill because VAWA only applied to "Indian country," where tribes live on reservations with their own court systems. By definition under federal law, there is very little Indian country in Alaska.

Impact Disputed

Alaska Natives and others have voiced concern about the provision, which has spurred confusion among law enforcement officials and fueled debates over the authority of Alaska Native tribes, according to the Post.

Alaska Associate Attorney General Tony West said a repeal is needed to allow the state to enforce tribal civil protection orders in domestic violence cases. "It's important to send a very clear signal that tribal authority means something, that tribal authority is an important component to helping to protect Native women and Native children from violence," West said.

However, other Alaska officials have said that the state already enforces such civil protection orders and that the impact would be minimal.

Murkowski said that while she still has concerns about repeal and the "expansion of jurisdiction over non-members of a tribe is a controversial issue" in Alaska, "[w]e must turn the tide of the rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse" in the state (Washington Post, 8/2).