Representatives from the U.S. Department of the Interior visited Bethel on Wednesday to hear from tribal representatives about the public safety issues unique to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The visit comes in the wake of Attorney General William Barr's tour of the region for similar reasons.
For DOI Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, the visit to Bethel was a bit of a homecoming.
“At Kilbuck, Mrs. Han was my fifth grade teacher,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney is the first Alaska Native to be confirmed to her position. Growing up in Bethel and Utqiagvik, she says that she saw the problems with public safety in rural Alaskan communities firsthand.
“The issues that we are discussing today are prevalent in every Alaska Native village. Every family has been impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault, violent crimes,” Sweeney said. “So yes, this is personal.”
Sweeney says that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has heard about these issues for years. Now, DOI Chief of Staff Kate MacGregor says that the bureau has the support it needs to take action.
“The president earlier this year declared May 5 as national missing and murdered Native American Awareness Day,” MacGregor said. “So this is something that has been raised in profile.”
MacGregor said that it was important to note that several members of the White House were in attendance at the listening session. Charles Addington, Director of the BIA’s Office of Justice Services, thinks that funding will be available. The next step is figuring out where the BIA can get the biggest bang for its buck.
“Trying to figure out where do we already have things in place that we can just start enhancing,” Addington said. “Low-hanging fruit that we can start making a difference right away.”
The Association of Village Council Presidents had called for the listening session. Forty-seven of the 56 federally recognized tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta sent representatives. AVCP Director of Communications Azara Mohammadi described some of their suggestions.
“There was a lot about restorative justice, there was a lot about resources for victims, and infrastructure came up again and again. Public safety infrastructure," she said.
She said that people in the lower 48 take holding cells and office space for granted, but in many villages that infrastructure is either falling apart or doesn’t exist.
“I mean, if you just don’t have the physical space for it, it’s very difficult,” Mohammadi said.
Tribal representatives asked for more funding for VPSOs and tribal courts. Another request was for changing the funding process itself. AVCP Director of Tribal Justice Rick Garcia says that there are problems when villages have to apply for competitive grants every year.
“What competitive funding does, it puts neighbors against neighbors, it puts families against families,” Garcia said.
Garcia is hopeful. The listening session came just a few months after U.S. Attorney General William Barr visited Bethel to talk about public safety. Garcia said that this meeting struck a different tone.
“I think this session was much different than Attorney General Barr’s,” Garcia said. “In that they really did come with the intention of listening and getting recommendations directly from our tribal leadership and delegates.”
DOI Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney said that improving public safety in this region will require creativity and should be developed in partnership with the people who know the issues best.