By Catherine Edwards, 6th Vice President of Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, located in Southeast Alaska and comprised of 32,000 tribal citizens.
This morning, as we witnessed the posting of the colors, I saw that POW-MIA flag, and a thought occurred to me that it’s about time we start posting that red flag for MMIW. Many women die in the battlefields and warzones of their everyday lives. I would also like to encourage that we begin to use the Women’s Warrior Song when we start meetings such as this.
First let me tell you about Southeast Alaska. It is made up of 22 island communities not connected by road. To get to these communities, you have to travel by boat or plane, and we aren’t talking about jets! Our Southeast Villages are rural and remote, with small populations, some between 300 to 1,000 people. If you travel by boat, it’s probably on the ferry system, the same ferry system that is cutting routes because of lack of funding, so the chance of getting on the boat is not that easy any more. I bring this up not to reiterate how difficult is to get around in Alaska, but to point out how difficult it would be for a woman trying to get herself and her children out. If they were escaping violence and couldn’t afford a plane ticket, they would rely on a ferry that may have run once a week; and now it only runs once a month.
Approximately 40% of villages/tribes in Southeast are without police or law enforcement of any kind, and there are those that are lucky enough to have a Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs). This is a program funded by the State of Alaska. VPSOs are armed with tasers, batons, and spray, not guns; they are mostly moderators. This year Central Council came close to losing its funding for its VPSO program because the state reminded us that tribes are not eligible for this funding. This money is set aside for nonprofits only and we would have to establish a nonprofit. While Central Council is able to meet this requirement, not all of our local tribes or villages have that capacity. Nor should the state be able to dictate terms for funding the safety of our communities.
Our small rural villages and communities are left unprotected and when crimes do happen, 911 is not even available in 97% of our communities. Earlier, we heard about protection orders. My question is who is there to enforce them if there isn’t law enforcement, and where do we go to get one if needed? If a victim requires an advocate or a trip to the hospital, she has to go to Anchorage, but how does one afford to get to Anchorage? When she gets back from Anchorage, who will protect her? These questions make it hard for us to create change in our villages as without resources, we are reluctant to stick our necks out in ways that create issues within small communities.
Last year, one of our young women was murdered in the village of Kake; this crime is still being investigated. The people involved in the investigation pride themselves that “this one was faster than the last one.” It only took them 12 hours to get to the crime scene, and this was considered successful because it normally takes days to respond. However, there is no arrest for this death that is categorized only as suspicious.
This was not the first of our young women murdered, and when bodies are discovered, they have to sit there for sometimes days on end, in the wilderness, the inclement weather, snow and rain, the wildlife, bears and ravens—what’s left of a crime scene after so many days? This however is not the worst of it, because while those bodies are waiting for someone to investigate, these women’s mothers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, children, nieces and nephews, and grandmothers must be forced to live with the inhumane manner in which they died and walk past and around these bodies until law enforcement shows up.
In Alaska, sea otters get more protection than our women and children. Not only were women killed and terrorized by someone they love, but now their bodies must be left to the elements until law enforcement shows up. This is problematic for several reasons; the evidence is so tainted that the men who committed these horrendous crimes get away with it. Not only are they getting away with it, they are already grooming their next victims.
It is time to provide real assistance to women and children. The recent funding announcement was a good start, but many villages and tribes in Alaska do not have the capacity to write grants or to provide services; some barely have enough capacity to even answer the phones.
I heard a gentleman say they opened an office in Anchorage to provide better access; however, Alaska is larger than the State of Texas, so one office in Anchorage is probably not going to cut it.
Central Council is taking steps to address and end violence against women and children. We have passed Judy’s Law, where if you murder your wife and endanger your children then your parental rights will be terminated. Judy Lee was murdered by her husband; he claimed to not know what happened to her; they searched for her and when they found her body, they came to arrest her husband for murdering her. He then held their children hostage during an armed encounter with law enforcement, so we passed this important law in her name. Her crime two years later is still not prosecuted. We also started a DV task force and we called on the States of Washington and Alaska to recognize the National Day of Awareness for MMIW. We held a rally and march in Juneau in April to bring awareness to this important work.
I am tired of hearing about our women terrorized and brutally murdered by someone they loved and trusted. They go to bed in fear every night not just for themselves but for their children as well. At the very least, women and children should get the same protections as marine mammals.
When we can’t get responses quick enough to protect a crime scene, our deceased sister is not able to walk into the forest with dignity, which was already taken from her at the hands of the perpetrator.
There was a public meeting in the village of Kake with a state commissioner. When weather prevented his departure, he had a special jet flown in to get him. Meanwhile our sacred woman’s body lays out in the weather, across the street from her home, the bed that she slept in, and the home that she was raised in. If commissioners can get special jets, surely they could get special jets to these crime scenes.
What do I tell a niece or a nephew when their mother disappears or her lifeless body is laying in the village—what do I say to them about why it’s still there? What do I say when the man that killed her still hasn’t been arrested? What do I tell my tribal citizens when they asked me, what can I do about it? Is it really an acceptable answer to say that it’s out of our jurisdiction? Leaving that body there, or not arresting perpetrators, sends a strong signal to the community that women and children don’t matter, we don’t care if you die, there is nothing anyone can do for you. This doesn’t help when you want victims to come forward. They won’t report. The powers that be have already delivered the message that she doesn’t matter. The last girl laid dead for days. The man that killed her hasn’t been arrested. It just further drives home the message: there is no use in coming forward, no one can protect you.
We concur with the NCAI’s task force recommendations. We also believe that we need transitional housing in our communities for our victims and their families. We also need intervention and healing services that are culturally appropriate and include rehabilitative services for all those affected. We need to provide training and funding for village governments and law enforcement, all of which needs to be in village/tribal control, not the state’s. The State of Alaska has proven time and again it does not care.
Also in thinking about the current funding, and as you’ve already heard, tribes with grant writers or who can afford grant writers were able to apply for those VOCA funds recently announced. Yet a lot of our tribal communities do not have offices filled with grant writers, victims’ advocates, or domestic violence advocates. Maybe it’s time for you to come to our villages and help us grow our capacity. Finally, that unique jurisdictional barrier—whether it’s investigating crimes, or prosecuting in court, or having state and county courts recognize a tribal protection order—that mud needs to be cleared up and settled for good.
Maybe it’s time for a civil rights investigation in our state when a moose kill gets a bigger response than a dead Native girl.