U.S. Associate Attorney General Addresses Alaska Federation of Natives: Commitment to Tribal Sovereignty and Safety

I appreciate your friendship, Julie.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today.

Like all of you, I have long respected Julie’s tenacious and effective leadership of the Native Americans of Alaska.

She is an incredible power! I appreciate you and the entire AFN team for organising this event.

It is always an honour for me to carry on Secretary Haaland’s legacy.

She has been spearheading the effort to ensure that we promote tribal justice in every way we can, and she is a great inspiration to all of us.

Greetings, Native Americans of Alaska! It is a privilege for me to be present with you in Anchorage to speak at the biggest Native American representative assembly in the country.

This is my third speech to AFN, but it’s my first time visiting Alaska on behalf of the Justice Department and my first time being able to attend this convention in person.

I would want to express my gratitude to each and every one of the tribal leaders present for everything that you do to promote the welfare, security, and health of your people.

As a lifetime supporter of civil rights and human rights, I am aware that doing what you do on a daily basis for your communities requires a strong sense of hope and perseverance.

The Office of Justice Programmes, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), the civil litigating divisions, including the Environment and Natural Resources Division, which, among other things, brings affirmative litigation on behalf of Tribes, the Department’s three grantmaking offices, and our Office for Access to Justice (ATJ) and the Community Relations Service (CRS) are just a few of the departments within the Justice Department that I oversee in my capacity as Associate Attorney General.

I began holding monthly meetings on tribal matters earlier this year, with the Executive Office for U.S. Indians and the Office for Tribal Justice (OTJ).

To effectively coordinate the Department’s efforts on cases and issues impacting Tribes, attorneys (EOUSA).

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with our amazing U.S. Lawyer Lane Tucker.

Ingrid Cumberlidge, the coordinator of MMIP (Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons), together with Lane’s committed team, are collaborating with federal, state, tribal, and local partners to enhance public safety in rural Alaska.

Creating MMIP Tribal Response Plans and calling a meeting of the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Advisory Committee are two of these initiatives. I spoke at the meeting yesterday. We’ll keep trying everything in our power to resolve this situation.

I came to Alaska because the Department of Justice is dedicated to two overlapping objectives: safeguarding the safety of all Alaskans and advancing and upholding tribal sovereignty.

We firmly believe that tribes, Native associations, and tribal leaders are the finest source of solutions for Alaska Native communities, which is why I say these goals compliment one other.

The agenda must be set by you.

I had the honour of travelling to Nome earlier this week to meet with Mary David, her colleagues from Kawerak, representatives from the Villages of Solomon and Shishmaref, and other officials from the area.

I went to the Norton Sound Regional Hospital and the Child Advocacy Centre in Kawerak.

I realised how much physical location, isolation, and a lack of infrastructure—including, in certain areas, a lack of running water—create and worsen public safety issues when I was in Nome.

Heartbreaking accounts of widespread domestic and sexual assault, including abuse of children and the elderly, were shared with me.

However, I also witnessed the amazing work being done by lawyers, safe-home coordinators, village public safety officers, sexual assault response nurses, child advocates, and attorneys to create tribal justice systems.

They are all striving to overcome the consequences of generational trauma in addition to other serious challenges.

Their tenacity and commitment to addressing these issues while upholding their communities’ traditions really touched me.

While some of this work is being funded by the Justice Department, more is obviously required.

The need for the Justice Department to keep taking proactive measures to protect your sovereignty, maintain your traditional practises and ways of life, and ensure the safety of you, your members, and all Alaskans was brought home to me by these conversations and visits.

The actions I want to discuss today can be divided into three categories: (1) achieving the goals set forth in the 2022 Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization (VAWA); (2) using the legal system to defend tribal interests and sovereignty; and (3) giving grant funding and other resources to Native American organisations and tribes in Alaska.

I would like to begin with VAWA.

With AFN’s ardent support and effort, the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization last year marked a significant accomplishment for Alaska Tribal sovereignty.

I appreciate everything you did to help make that happen.

Alaskan tribes are permitted to exercise special tribal criminal jurisdiction over some crimes, including as domestic and sexual assault, under VAWA 2022.

That means that non-Indians who commit certain offences in a Native Village may be prosecuted in a Tribal court by tribes that satisfy certain requirements.

This helps safeguard women, girls, and all survivors of sexual and domestic abuse and violence in Alaska, particularly in Native Villages, in addition to advancing tribal sovereignty.

Leaders and employees from the Department of Justice, as well as our colleagues from the Department of the Interior, began consulting with tribal leaders and advocates shortly after VAWA 2022 was passed.

These consultations took place, among other places, at the AFN Convention held here last year and most recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Your leadership and advice were really helpful to this process.

I’m excited to announce today the opening of the Justice Department’s Alaska Pilot Programme, which will allow tribes to exercise special tribal criminal jurisdiction in Alaska by obtaining Attorney General designation.

Since many Alaskan Tribes are currently preparing to exercise this power, we have established a three-track approach that will provide interested Tribes with government support and technical assistance along the route.

Every Alaskan tribe is welcome to enrol in track one, which enables you to get peer-to-peer support and technical assistance through a grant from our Office on Violence Against Women to the Alaska Native Justice Centre (ANJC), with whom I met this morning.

Interested Tribes will need to fill out a questionnaire identifying any gaps in their preparedness to exercise special tribal criminal jurisdiction in order to be eligible for additional tracks.

A federal liaison will be established to engage with the tribes in track two in conjunction with ANJC to remedy those gaps.

Additionally, Tribes might be suggested for Attorney General once they go back on track three.

I urge everyone to think about participating in the Pilot Programme.

You told us that in order to establish unique tribal criminal jurisdiction, money, technical help, and other resources would be needed.

I’m happy to inform that Chickaloon Native Village and the Village of Dot Lake have already received two awards from the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) as part of a special initiative that targets Tribes in Alaska.

These awards will aid in the communities’ efforts to establish special tribal criminal jurisdiction over the course of the next five years.

I would want to take this opportunity to thank Rosie Hidalgo, the Director of OVW, whose staff has been working really hard on the Pilot Programme and who has been in Alaska for the past week.

Another significant thing that VAWA 2022 accomplished for Alaskan tribes was that Congress reaffirmed the tribes’ inherent right to exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction over “all Indians present in the Village.”

This confirmation was crucial.

Tribal leaders approached the Justice Department this summer, pleading with us to further elucidate the law in this regard, even as the Attorney General himself did.

I’m glad to say that we listened to you and that the Office of Tribal Justice at the Department of Justice is producing a letter that summarises the strong legal backing for your use of this innate jurisdiction and restates the VAWA 2022 declaration.

Through litigation, the Justice Department is dedicated to upholding your sovereignty and way of life.

The Justice Department’s victorious defence of the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, at the Supreme Court this past year was one of the most significant legal wins.

Although the conclusion was uncertain, we now know that this law has greatly protected Native American children and tribal culture.

I’m overjoyed that we were able to maintain ICWA as the national law.

By putting property into trust for the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, our colleagues at the Interior Department are making a historic step towards the restoration of Alaskan tribal homelands.

The state of Alaska has challenged that action, and the Justice Department is proud to stand up for it.

I’ve heard from so many influential people during my stay here about how critical it is to prevent the depletion of subsistence resources.

The state of Alaska was unlawfully attempting to obstruct federal control of the subsistence salmon fishery on the Kuskokwim River, and the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against it last year.

We are overjoyed that the state’s orders have been temporarily halted by a federal court.

We are eager to collaborate further on subsistence-use problems, and I am aware that the court has permitted AFN to join the lawsuit.

The Justice Department is supporting tribal sovereignty and advancing public safety through grant monies and expanded access to funding and training as part of the third set of tangible initiatives.

With great pleasure, I announce that 111 American Indian and Alaska Native villages will receive funds today, with approximately $14 million going to Alaska Native Villages.

These grants fund programmes and services pertaining to justice and public safety.

In order to address pressing issues related to public safety in your areas, we are also sponsoring specific projects.

For instance, we are aware of the critical need for, but all too frequent lack of, law enforcement training.

With great pride, I announce that the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) in Bethel will get a new award from us, one that will allow them to continue funding police and tribal officer training in neighbouring villages until 2025.

In 2020, our COPS Office started using AVCP to fund officer training and youth outreach initiatives.

I had a meeting with AVCP this morning to learn about their viewpoint on community public safety.

Through our COPS Hiring Programme funds, the Justice Department has given over $16 million to over 35 Native Villages since 2019.

Villages have been able to hire 48 policemen in total thanks to these grants in order to meet urgent public safety demands.

Alaska Native Villages have been given priority consideration for these awards by the COPS Office, and this practise will continue.

The winners of this year’s COPS Hiring Programme funding will be revealed soon, and in the meanwhile, we will keep doing targeted outreach to assist Villages in gaining access to these crucial resources.

At the Justice Department, we sincerely pledge to hear your concerns and take all necessary steps to improve the accessibility of our grant programmes.

You informed us that you require additional in-person assistance when submitting grant applications.

Our Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) is expanding its staffing level with Alaska Native Villages by twofold for the first time.

We are reorganising OVC to incorporate a staff dedicated to Alaska.

OVC project administrators met with 25 grantees during the course of this financing cycle, spending 32 days in Alaska to offer practical technical assistance.

Nearly 20% of OVC’s Tribal Set-Aside Awards, which enable Tribal communities to improve services for victims of crime, are going to first-time beneficiaries as a result of that outreach.

The Chickaloon Native Village, the False Pass Tribal Council, the Atka, Karluk, Kiana, Kluti-Kaah, Nunam Iqua, and Pitkas Point Native Villages, the Nenana Native Association, the Village of Solomon, and the Yup’ik Women’s Coalition are among the recipients of this funding.

We are honoured that you are taking part in this programme.

Additionally, our Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) is keeping up its expansion of grantmaking authority for Alaska Native tribes.

OVW started hosting an annual workshop in 2017 with the purpose of meeting and listening to Alaskan tribal grantees and leaders.

The workshops’ main goals are to support communities in making the most of their responses to sexual and domestic abuse, protect victims, and hold offenders accountable.

This initiative is effective: OVW has increased the amount of grants it gives to tribal administrations and organisations between 2017 and 2023.

OVW granted almost $12 million to tribal governments and organisations in Alaska just last month.

Additionally, in order to assist Tribal grantees in Alaska, OVW has employed two staff members who are stationed here permanently.

We are aware that we are capable of more, though. Senator Murkowski and Congresswoman Peltola attended a public safety discussion in Anchorage with the Attorney General in late August.

He learned at the discussion about Alaska’s serious public safety issues and the need for increased federal money for tribes.

After his visit, he gave our Office of Tribal Justice instructions to collaborate with our grantmaking offices and look into every possibility for enhancing funding prospects for Alaska Tribes, including proposing legislation to Congress.

We’re making good progress on this project and will soon be able to tell you more.

Without a leader of the Justice Department who has spent 35 years at the Department serving as a devoted advisor and fervent supporter of Tribes’ interests, none of this work—and so much more—would have been possible.

Tracy Toulou, who is also present, has been a partner and friend to tribal leaders throughout this state and the nation as the Director of the Office of Tribal Justice.

At the Justice Department, he holds us responsible for ensuring that we follow your instructions and can carry out the plans you have laid out.

He also keeps us honest. Without him, there would have been no Alaska Pilot Programme, inherent jurisdiction memo, and a host of other things.

Let me conclude where I began: maintaining the safety of Alaskans and preserving and enhancing tribal sovereignty are the two pillars upon which our work as Alaskan tribes is built.

We are aware that it is unacceptable for towns to lack public safety officers, for law enforcement to take days to respond, or for so many women and girls to be abused in the United States of America.

This is not how we view the current situation.

In order to address the complex challenges that Alaska Tribes frequently face, I firmly believe that we are making and will continue to make substantial progress by engaging with you, listening to your leadership, and working with your members.

Once again, I want to thank you for your partnership and leadership. We’re going to stick with the principles and keep working together.

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