Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Alaska Federation of Natives 2023 Annual Convention
Remarks as Delivered
Julie, thank you for your friendship. I want to thank you for inviting me to speak today. Like all of you, I have long admired Julie’s tireless and powerful leadership of the Alaska Federation of Natives. She is a force of nature! I am grateful to you and the entire AFN team for putting together this gathering. I am also always honored to follow in Secretary Haaland’s footsteps. She is a deep inspiration to all of us and has been leading the charge to make sure that we do all that we can to support Tribal justice.
Hello, Alaska Federation of Natives! I’m honored to be here with you in Anchorage to address the largest representative gathering in the United States of Native people. This is my third time speaking to AFN, but it is my first time being able to join you in person at this convention, and my first time visiting Alaska on behalf of the Justice Department.
I want to thank all of you Tribal leaders here today for everything you do to advocate for the health, safety, and well-being of your communities. As a lifelong civil and human rights advocate myself, I know that it takes deep wells of hope and persistence to do what you do every day for your communities.
As Associate Attorney General, I oversee many parts of the Justice Department that work with and support Tribes and Tribal sovereignty: 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 — the Office of Justice Programs, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), and the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW); and our Office for Access to Justice (ATJ) and the Community Relations Service (CRS). Earlier this year I started a monthly Tribal issues meeting, with these offices, the Office for Tribal Justice (OTJ), and the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys (EOUSA), to better coordinate the Department’s work on cases and issues affecting Tribes.
While here in Alaska, I’ve gotten to spend time with our terrific U.S. Attorney, Lane Tucker. Lane and her dedicated team, including MMIP (Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons) Coordinator Ingrid Cumberlidge, are working alongside federal, state, Tribal, and local partners to improve the public safety situation in rural Alaska. Those efforts include convening the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Advisory Committee, which I spoke at yesterday, and developing MMIP Tribal Response Plans. We will continue to do all we can to address this crisis.
I came to Alaska because the Justice Department is committed to two complementary goals: promoting and respecting Tribal sovereignty, and keeping all Alaskans safe. I say these goals are complementary because we believe strongly that the best solutions for Alaska Native communities are driven by Tribes, Native associations, and Tribal leaders. You have to set the agenda.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of visiting Nome and meeting with Mary David, her colleagues from Kawerak, representatives from the Villages of Solomon and Shishmaref, and other local leaders. I visited Kawerak’s Child Advocacy Center and the Norton Sound Regional Hospital. Being there in Nome brought home to me the degree to which geography, distance, and lack of infrastructure, including in some places a lack of running water, create and exacerbate public safety challenges. I heard heartbreaking stories of pervasive sexual and domestic violence, including against children and elders. But I also saw the incredible efforts of child advocates, sexual assault response nurses, safe-home coordinators, Village Public Safety Officers, and attorneys building Tribal justice systems. Each of them is working to surmount the effects of generational trauma and other grave difficulties. I truly was moved by their persistence and dedication to working within the traditions of their communities to address these challenges. The Justice Department is funding some of this work, but it is clear that more is needed.
These meetings and visits underscored for me the need for the Justice Department to continue taking concrete steps to support your sovereignty and your efforts to preserve your cultural practices and ways of life, and to keep you, your members, and all Alaskans safe. The steps I want to talk about today fall into three categories: (1) realizing the promise of the 2022 Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization (VAWA); (2) supporting Tribal interests and Tribal sovereignty through litigation; and (3) providing grant funding and other resources to Alaska Tribes and Native organizations.
I want to start with VAWA. The Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization last year — passed with AFN’s strong support and advocacy — was a major step forward for Alaska Tribal sovereignty. Thank you for everything that you did to make that happen. VAWA 2022 authorizes Alaska Tribes to exercise special Tribal criminal jurisdiction over certain crimes, including domestic and sexual violence. That means Tribes that meet certain requirements can prosecute in Tribal court non-Indians who commit those crimes in a Native Village. This not only promotes Tribal sovereignty, but also helps protect women, girls, and all survivors of sexual and domestic violence and abuse throughout Alaska, and especially in Native Villages.
Starting shortly after VAWA 2022 was passed, leaders and staff from across the Justice Department, along with our colleagues from the Department of the Interior, engaged in consultations with Tribal leaders and advocates, including here at last year’s AFN Convention, and most recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Your input and your leadership was critical to this process.
I am thrilled to announce today the launch of the Justice Department’s Alaska Pilot Program, which will pave the way for Tribes to obtain Attorney General designation to exercise special Tribal criminal jurisdiction here in Alaska. We recognize that many Alaska Tribes are still in the early stages of being ready to exercise this jurisdiction, so we have created a three-track process for interested Tribes to receive technical assistance and federal support along the way.
All Alaska Tribes are invited to join track one, through which you can receive technical assistance and peer-to-peer support through an award from our Office on Violence Against Women to the Alaska Native Justice Center (ANJC), who I met with just this morning. To qualify for further tracks, interested Tribes will complete a questionnaire to identify gaps in their readiness to exercise special Tribal criminal jurisdiction. Tribes in track two will be assigned a federal liaison to work with them, alongside ANJC, to address those gaps. And once on track three, Tribes may be recommended for Attorney General designation. I encourage all of you to consider joining the Pilot Program.
One thing we heard from you is that implementing special Tribal criminal jurisdiction is going to require funding, along with technical support and other assistance. I am pleased to announce that, under a special initiative targeting Tribes in Alaska, the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) has already made two awards to Chickaloon Native Village and the Village of Dot Lake, to support their efforts to implement special Tribal criminal jurisdiction over the next five years. I want to take a moment to recognize OVW Director Rosie Hidalgo, who has spent the last week here in Alaska and whose team has been working tirelessly on the Pilot Program.
VAWA 2022 did something else important for Alaska Tribes — in it, Congress confirmed that Tribes have inherent authority to exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction over “all Indians present in the Village.” This affirmation was so important. This summer, we at the Justice Department, including the Attorney General himself, heard from Tribal leaders asking us to further clarify the law in this area. I am happy to announce that we heard you, and that the Department’s Office of Tribal Justice is releasing a memorandum reaffirming VAWA 2022’s statement and outlining the overwhelming legal support for your exercise of this inherent authority.
The Justice Department is also committed to supporting your sovereignty and ways of life through litigation. One of the most important court victories of this past year was the Justice Department’s successful defense of the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, at the Supreme Court. We know that this law has done so much to protect Native children and Tribal culture and it was not a sure thing what the outcome would be. I am so glad that we were able to make sure that ICWA remains the law of the land.
Our colleagues at the Interior Department are taking a landmark step to restore Alaskan Tribal homelands by taking land into trust for the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes. The Justice Department is proud to defend that action against challenges by the state of Alaska.
In my time here, I’ve heard from so many leaders about the importance of protecting subsistence resources from depletion. Last year, the Justice Department sued Alaska’s state government to challenge its illegal attempt to interfere with federal management of subsistence salmon fishing on the Kuskokwim River. We are thrilled that a federal court has temporarily blocked the state from implementing its orders. I know that the court also recently allowed AFN to participate in the case, and we look forward to continuing to work together on subsistence-use issues.
The third set of concrete steps revolves around grantmaking: the Justice Department is supporting Tribal sovereignty and promoting public safety through our grant dollars and increased access to funding and training.
I am very happy to announce that today, we are awarding grants to 111 American Indian and Alaska Native communities, including nearly $14 million for Alaska Native Villages. These awards support public-safety and justice-related projects and services.
We are also supporting special projects to address acute public safety challenges in your communities. For example, we know that law enforcement training is sorely needed but too often unavailable. I am proud to announce that we are making a new award to the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) in Bethel to continue supporting Tribal and Police Officer training in nearby Villages through 2025. Our COPS Office first began funding officer training and youth outreach activities through AVCP in 2020. I met with AVCP this morning to hear their perspective on public safety in their communities.
Since 2019, the Justice Department has awarded over $16 million to more than 35 Native Villages through our COPS Hiring Program grants. Those grants have allowed Villages to hire a total of 48 officers to address critical public safety needs. The COPS Office has been giving, and will continue to give Alaska Native Villages priority consideration for these grants. We will soon be announcing the recipients of this year’s COPS Hiring Program grants, and in the meantime, we will continue to provide tailored outreach to help Villages access these important resources.
We at the Justice Department are deeply committed to listening to you and doing everything we can to make our grant programs more accessible.
We heard from you that you need more in-person support for grant applications. For the first time, our Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) is doubling the number of its staff working with Alaska Native Villages. We are restructuring OVC to include an Alaska-focused team. This funding cycle, OVC grant managers spent 32 days on the ground in Alaska, meeting with 25 grantees to provide hands-on technical assistance.
As a result of that outreach, almost 20% of OVC’s Tribal Set-Aside Awards, which allow Tribal communities to enhance services for victims of crime, are going to first-time recipients. Those recipients include the Chickaloon Native Village, the False Pass Tribal Council, the Native Villages of Atka, Karluk, Kiana, Kluti-Kaah, Nunam Iqua, and Pitkas Point, the Nenana Native Association, the Village of Solomon, and the Yup’ik Women’s Coalition. We are proud to have your participation in this program.
Our Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) is also continuing to increase its grantmaking capacity for Alaska Tribes.
Starting in 2017, OVW began holding a yearly workshop to listen to and meet with Tribal grantees and leaders in Alaska. The workshops focus on helping communities maximize their response to domestic and sexual violence; ensure victim safety; and hold wrongdoers accountable. This program is working: Between 2017 and 2023, OVW has doubled its grant awards to Tribal governments and organizations. Just this past month, OVW awarded over $12 million to Alaska Tribal governments and Tribal organizations. OVW has also hired two staff members who are permanently based here in Alaska to support Tribal grantees here.
But we also know that we can be doing more. In late August, the Attorney General visited Galena with Senator Murkowski and held a public safety roundtable in Anchorage with the Senator and Congresswoman Peltola. At the roundtable, he heard about the significant public safety challenges in Alaska and the need for more federal government funding for Tribes. Following that visit, he directed our Office of Tribal Justice to work with our grantmaking offices and examine all options — including recommending legislation to Congress — for improving funding opportunities for Alaska Tribes. This work is well underway, and we will have more to share with you soon.
This work — and so much more — would not have been possible without a Justice Department leader who has been an indispensable advisor and passionate advocate for Tribes’ interests during his 35 years at the Department. As Director of the Office of Tribal Justice, Tracy Toulou, who is also here today, has been a partner and friend to Tribal leaders across this state and across the country. He keeps us honest at the Justice Department and holds us accountable to making sure that we do what we hear you need, and that we are able to implement the agenda that you are setting. The Alaska Pilot Program, the inherent jurisdiction memo, and so much else could not have happened without him.
Let me close where I started, with the twin goals that are the foundation of our Alaska Tribal work: to keep Alaskans safe, and to protect and enhance Tribal sovereignty. We know it is not acceptable in the United States of America for communities to be without public safety officers, to wait days for law enforcement assistance, to have so many women and girls suffer abuse. We do not accept this as the status quo. By working together with you, by listening to your leadership and by working with your members, I truly believe that we are making and will continue to make meaningful progress to address the complex challenges that Alaska Tribes so often face.
Thank you again for your leadership and your partnership. We will keep the faith and we will continue to work together.
Updated October 23, 2023