Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the 2021 Annual Alaska Federation of Natives Winter Conference
December 16, 2021
Remarks as Prepared
Good afternoon. My name is Vanita Gupta and I am the Associate Attorney General at the Justice Department. I am honored to speak to you today as part of this extraordinary gathering.
I want to begin by thanking my friend, Julie Kitka, for inviting me to speak today, and for your steady and powerful leadership of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN). The entire AFN team has done truly amazing work to promote the needs of Alaska Natives.
I would also like to thank Secretary Haaland for your inspiring and history-making leadership of the Department of the Interior; Senator Murkowski, Senator Sullivan and Representative Young for your continued advocacy in Congress for Alaska Natives; and the many Tribal leaders here today for your formidable leadership and advocacy on behalf of your members.
I addressed many of you last May, and I’m grateful to once again attend the largest representative annual gathering in the United States of any Native peoples.
I am particularly honored to be here to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), a law which set the stage for the current leadership structure of Alaska Native Villages and Corporations and precipitated Alaska Native economic expansion.
Today, regional corporations have shepherded remarkable economic development for Alaska Natives, by focusing on the development of natural resources, such as oil and gas, timber, gravel and minerals, as well as tourism, real estate development and management and federal government contracting. At the same time, Native associations have continued to provide health care, social services and public safety, often with federal funding.
Passage of the ANCSA also brought considerable confusion regarding jurisdiction in Tribal areas in Alaska. Unlike most states in the lower 48, there was not an extensive history of formal interaction between the United States and Native governments prior to statehood.
As a result, there are no treaties between Alaskan tribes and the United States. When Alaska became a state, it was also added to the list of states covered by P.L. 280, which afforded the state of Alaska jurisdiction over criminal offenses in Indian country.
The passage of ANCSA changed that relationship by structuring the tribes as corporations with Tribal shareholders, leaving open the question whether land governed by Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) constituted “Indian country” for purposes of U.S. federal law.
In 1998, the Supreme Court decided in Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie that the ANCSA extinguished the “Indian country” status of land held by ANCs, thus denying the Alaska Native village governance over corporate land.
This eliminated most Indian country jurisdiction not already diminished by P.L. 280, leaving the State of Alaska as the only public safety presence in most Native villages in Alaska.
While the Alaska Department of Public Safety does an incredible job under unthinkable circumstances, they are simply stretched too thin to provide a strong criminal justice response to all citizens, particularly given the size and challenging terrain of this beautiful state.
According to the Indian Law and Order Commission’s (ILOC) November 2013 report, approximately 470 state officers are responsible for providing law enforcement services for 735,132 people over 586,412 square miles. That is one officer for every 1,200 miles or 1,500 people. And that does not even account for the fact that law enforcement is often regionalized and remote from Alaska Native Villages.
Many factors, including distance, lack of roads and other dependable means of transport, have contributed to a public safety crisis in rural Alaska. It is not uncommon for days to pass before state troopers can respond to a serious crime in a village.
In recent years, the ability of state troopers to respond to villages has been further undermined by a decrease in state criminal justice resources, which is generally attributed to falling oil revenues.
Unfortunately, these factors compound to make Alaska Natives some of the least safe and most vulnerable individuals in the country. For example, according to the 2013 report of the ILOC, Alaska Native women are overrepresented in the domestic violence victim population by 250%. In the state of Alaska, Alaska Native females comprise 7.5% of the population but the ILOC found that Alaska Native women are 47% of reported rape victims in the state.
Simply put, the public safety of Alaska Natives is a state of emergency. This Administration is committed to supporting Alaska Native communities and believes that the challenges faced by Tribal communities are best met by Tribally-driven solutions.
Our commitment is reflected in department funded projects in Alaska. Since 2019, DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing (COPS Office) has awarded more than $10 million to more than 30 native villages to support 38 officers to address public safety needs in these villages. The COPS Office plans to continue to provide priority consideration for Alaska Native Village officer hiring requests during the FY 2022 funding cycle, and is planning to provide tailored outreach to these villages, to help them access these important DOJ resources.
The COPS Office has also supported special projects to address acute challenges. For example, we know that training is sorely needed but often unavailable even on the most fundamental topics. To address this, in September 2020 COPS awarded the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel, AK a two-year grant to enhance Basic and Advanced Tribal and Village Police Officer training, as well as to conduct youth outreach activities.
DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) funds the Alaska Tribal Justice Resource Center through a training and technical assistance award to the Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurALCap), which provides an array of technical assistance services and resources to respond to the unique, unmet and emerging training and technical assistance needs of Alaska tribes and Tribal organizations involved in enhancing their respective Tribal justice systems.
DOJ recently selected Alaska Native Villages Metlakatla, Kenaitze, and Tlingit & Haida to participate in the DOJ Tribal Access Program (TAP), which provides technology and training to tribes to help them access national crime information systems for both criminal and civil purposes.
By participating in TAP, these tribes now have the ability to exchange data across the national crime information systems, which is a critical tool for tribes seeking to register sex offenders and issue and enforce orders of protection. We continue to look at expanding TAP to other eligible tribes in Alaska, as well as across the United States.
I am also very pleased to announce that today the department has opened the FY 2022 Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation period. Also known as CTAS, the funding under this initiative is available to assist American Indian and Alaska Native communities in the areas of crime prevention, victim services and coordinated community responses to violence against native women.
As many of you know, this funding from the Office of Justice of Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and Office for Victims of Crime and the department’s COPS Office, can be used for a variety of public safety and justice-related projects and services.
In addition to supporting law enforcement and criminal justice responses, DOJ is also committed to helping Alaska Native victims of crime achieve healing and justice.
DOJ’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) has awarded over $116 million in grants to Alaska Native Villages and entities that serve Alaska Native communities to provide services for crime victims.
In FY 2020, DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention made $14.3 million available to support the American Indian and Alaska Native Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) Expansion program to improve the investigation of child abuse cases and treatment for children and their families in Tribal and Alaska Native communities.
And we are especially concerned about Alaska Native women in remote communities facing epidemic rates of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Funding from DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women in Alaska includes over $56 million in current grants aimed at bolstering efforts throughout the state to curb high rates of these crimes.
OVW issued $14 million in grants last year to foster coordinated responses to these crimes, establishing and expanding forensic healthcare services for sexual assault victims, providing transitional housing and legal assistance, supporting investigation and prosecution efforts, and training justice, healthcare and victim services professionals.
As you know, many victims of domestic violence seek protection orders to ensure their safety and that of their children, and federal law requires that properly issued protection orders be afforded Full Faith and Credit across jurisdictions.
To ensure the seamless recognition and enforcement of protection orders across jurisdictions, OVW, in partnership with BJA, awarded $700,000 in grants to both the Alaska Department of Public Safety Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and RurAL Cap to implement the Alaska Full Faith and Credit Training Initiative.
We expect this effort will help mitigate some of the persistent barriers around protection order enforcement in Alaska.
Confronting the current crisis of unsolved missing and murdered indigenous people is another top priority of this Administration as well. By working with Tribal communities, we are committed to bringing the necessary resources to fully address this emergency.
As President Biden said in “A Proclamation on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day 2021:”
“Our failure to allocate the necessary resources and muster the necessary commitment to addressing and preventing this ongoing tragedy not only demeans the dignity and humanity of each person who goes missing or is murdered, it sends pain and shockwaves across our Tribal communities.
Our treaty and trust responsibilities to Tribal nations require our best efforts, and our concern for the well-being of these fellow citizens require us to act with urgency. To this end, our government must strengthen its support and collaboration with Tribal communities.”
In keeping with this commitment, on November 15th, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People. This order instructs the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and the Interior to take multiple actions across government and within Tribal communities to respond to this crisis.
During the White House Tribal Nations Summit last month, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco announced the creation of a steering committee within DOJ to coordinate the department’s efforts to address the issues of missing or murdered indigenous persons and to develop a comprehensive plan to strengthen the department’s work in this area, which will be submitted to the President within 240 days.
Likewise, this Administration is committed to fully implementing Savanna’s Act, which mandates that we improve Tribal access to federal databases, collect and report data on missing or murdered Natives, train federal, Tribal and state law enforcement, and develop and distribute regional or Tribal guidelines for responding to cases of missing or murdered Natives.
Under this Administration, the department has moved to implement a substantial portion of the Act’s requirements, consulting with Tribes and meeting with Tribal and urban Indian organizations to inform each step.
As a result of these discussions, we will enhance training for prosecutors and law enforcement and improve the way the FBI reports on missing persons to help identify at-risk groups in Tribal communities.
As required by the Savanna’s Act, OVW has made new funding available to assist Tribal communities in responding to the MMIP crisis and added a discussion about improving access to federal criminal databases in their 2021 annual consultation. Through future consultations, OVW will maintain an ongoing “channel” to continue these discussions through future administrations.
This Administration is also fully committed to implementing the Not Invisible Act, which requires the Department of the Interior to establish a Joint Commission with DOJ on reducing violent crime against Indians. This commission will include federal and non-federal representatives, including Tribal, state and local law enforcement, service providers, Tribal judges and other Tribal officials, survivors of human trafficking and family members of missing or murdered Natives. DOJ and the Department of the Interior are working together on the appointment of members.
DOJ is also collaborating with our Tribal partners to develop Tribal Community Response Plans, cross-jurisdictional protocols that govern law enforcement responses when responding to reports of missing persons. The process of developing each plan is led by the Tribe and involves local and federal partners identified by the Tribe. Here in Alaska, the MMIP Tribal Community Response Plan has been adopted by two tribes. Two additional tribes have begun the adoption process.
The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska has co-hosted a number of regional Missing and Murdered Listening and Consultation Sessions giving 162 tribes the opportunity to share their MMIP stories and needs.
Despite these programs and initiatives, we know that there is much more that DOJ and the federal government can do to support Alaska Native communities in their work toward safety, justice, and healing for Alaska Natives.
This administration strongly supports changes to the Violence Against Women Act that would expand Special Domestic Violence Jurisdiction (SDVCJ) to Alaska Native communities. In VAWA 2013, Congress recognized and affirmed tribes’ inherent power to exercise jurisdiction over non-Indian defendants who commit acts of domestic violence in Indian country.
Unfortunately, the Act did not extend to Native communities in Alaska and that must be rectified. OVW recently announced that it will hold its annual Tribal consultation on violence against women in Alaska in 2022, and we look forward to that government-to-government consultation bringing the necessary focus to issues of particular concern to Alaska Natives.
The federal government has a unique trust relationship with Alaska Natives, one that I take very seriously, as do my colleagues. We are committed to supporting Alaska tribes and working together to address complex safety challenges. Thank you for your leadership and your partnership.