Stakes High In U.S. Attorney General's Visit To Bethel, Napaskiak

Credit Joey Mendolia / Alaska's Energy Desk/Alaska Public Media

U.S. Attorney General William Barr is visiting Bethel and Napaskiak today, May 31, to talk with leaders in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta about rural justice. The issues include murdered and missing indigenous women, the lack of law enforcement in Alaska Native communities, and the role that the Department of Justice could play in giving tribes more resources. 

Attorney General Barr's first stop in Bethel will be the Kuskokwim's only women's shelter, the Tundra Women's Coalition, where Ina Marie Chaney, shelter manager, is having a busy week.

"Well it seems like lately we’ve been over capacity, shuffling people in the shelter and trying to find room," Chaney explained. In addition to her managerial duties, she’s been preparing for the nation’s top lawyer to visit Bethel.

Attorney General Barr is visiting Alaska to hear first-hand about the challenges that Alaska Natives face in the state’s justice system. In Anchorage on Wednesday, he visited with Alaska Native leaders who described the lack of law enforcement in their communities.

Association of Village Council Presidents CEO Vivian Korthuis told Barr, "When I came into the room this morning, I noticed that the media was here, and I also noticed there were six cameras. Six media outlets, if you count the cameras behind me. We have six VPSOs [village public safety officers] in our region that serves 56 tribes."

AVCP operates the VPSO program for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Gov. Mike Dunleavy wants to slash $3 million from the VPSO program and give it to the Alaska State Troopers. That will leave most villages without any law enforcement. Already it can take several hours, even days, before a state trooper shows up to a village that needs help.

Public safety has remained the top priority for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta's 56 tribes for the past three years, according to an annual AVCP survey. AVCP CEO Korthuis says that the best solutions to solve the public safety issue will come from the tribes. Their members are in the communities and most aware of the stakes and the issues. Korthuis has suggested using the village health aide model as a framework for providing law enforcement to rural communities.

U.S. House Rep. Don Young has proposed a pilot program that would allow five Alaska Native tribes to expand criminal jurisdiction.

The other issue before U.S Attorney General Barr is the fact that Alaska Native women experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in the nation. A report from the Urban Indian Health Institute shows that Anchorage is in the top four cities for the most murdered and missing indigenous women cases. This issue is a top priority for Alaska House Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Bethel Democrat and the only Alaska Native woman in the state House.

"These are not just numbers. These are real Alaskans," Zulkosky said. "We cannot have conversations about public safety and about these statistics without lawmakers recognizing that these are real human lives and the impacts to families and communities are so significant."

Zulkosky passed a resolution asking Congress to reauthorize VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act. In the past, Attorney General Barr has spoken against reauthorization, saying it wasn’t “a legitimate interest” of the federal government, according to Newsweek magazine.

He has since changed his stance. Earlier this year he said that he supports reauthorizing the act.