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Statements On Introduced Bills And Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



S. 3740. A bill to supplement State jurisdiction in Alaska Native villages with Federal and tribal resources to improve the quality of life in rural Alaska while reducing domestic violence against Native women and children and to reduce alcohol and drug abuse and for other purposes; to the Committee on Indian Affairs.

Mr. BEGICH. Mr. President, today I introduce legislation to address issues of great concern to me and to all who care about public safety in Alaska Native villages. Last week President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order bill into law. That legislation passed because Congress recognized the great need to provide more support for the criminal justice system and communities in Indian Country. While this law has some important provisions that will benefit Alaska Native communities, I believe the remoteness and other unique conditions of many Native villages in my State compel us to do more. That is why I am introducing the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2010.

My bill will establish a demonstration project for Alaska Native tribes to allow tribes in Alaska to set up tribal courts, establish tribal ordinances, and to impose sanctions on those people who violate the ordinances. It would enhance current tribal authority, while maintaining the State's primary role and responsibility in criminal matters. Additionally, those communities selected to be part of the demonstration project would be eligible for an Alaska Village Peace Officer grant to serve those communities in a holistic manner.

Unfortunately, because of the vastness of Alaska, too many of our Alaska Native villages lack any law enforcement. Too often, minor cases involving alcohol and domestic abuse go unreported because the nearest State Trooper resides in a hub community, located a long and expensive airplane ride away. Frequently, harsh weather prevents the Troopers from flying into a community even when the most heinous acts have occurred. Approximately 71 villages have a sole unarmed Village Patrol Safety officer, VPSO, who must be on duty 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. These hard-working VPSOs are underpaid, and while communities try to provide some housing and heating assistance, in places where fuel oil can cost as much as $8 a gallon, it can be difficult to sustain the funding for these public servants.

As one who believes strongly in community involvement, I strongly believe tribes in Alaska should have a role in their law enforcement needs. This local control not only provides security for the communities, but also encourages local acceptance of the judicial system as a whole. With the changes in place that my bill would require, residents of Alaska Native villages will see a system that does more than just fly in after a tragedy has occurred.

Just recently communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have experienced an alarming suicide cluster. Unfortunately Alaska Native communities have grown accustomed to alarming suicide rates, but in the past two months there have been at least nine self-inflicted deaths in these villages. Nick Tucker, an elder in Emmonak, recently wrote a letter to the State of Alaska's rural affairs director to try to bring attention to the issue. Part of his letter begged for the Governor to call the legislature in session and said it is no longer acceptable for them to wait for the Troopers because ``in the villages, they take forever.'' Part of this continuing suicide cycle is the presence of drugs and alcohol. Predators do not fear police action when they bootleg alcohol or sell drugs in villages, because there is no police presence. One can walk into a village, speak with an elder and that person will tell you who is bootlegging alcohol.

These communities are full of rich heritage and culture, however many have high unemployment due to the remoteness and lack of opportunity in the village. Most economic development in Alaska happens in either the metropolitan areas, or in very remote areas for resource extraction. Many of the villages have unemployment rates above 20 percent. Alaska Natives survival is highly dependent on the land. They subsist on game, berries, and fish. However, as hunting and fishing stocks dwindle many people are feeling disconnected from their heritage and have turned to drugs and alcohol. Too many people in the villages feel isolated and lack a connection, both figuratively and literally. Though educational attainment in the last 40 years has increased dramatically, the dropout rate in Alaska still hovers at 40 percent. Too many of our young men and women have lost hope and are losing a sense of community.

We must give our communities the tools necessary to protect themselves. Too often, we pour resources into urban areas, but become stuck when we try to work toward solutions for our most remote communities. We should no longer allow the answer from anyone to be ``we don't have the resources.'' Alaska Native villages are vibrant, strong communities and we should do everything in our power to work with these communities and answer their calls for help.

I encourage my colleagues to join me on this legislation, and ask for the full Senate to consider and pass it to provide help to some of the places in our country most in need.


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