U.S. Attorney General hears from Indigenous leaders about justice problems in rural Alaska

U.S. Attorney General William Barr on May 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. Barr is visiting Alaska this week, and heard from Indigenous leaders Wednesday about law enforcement challenges in rural communities. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Attorney General William Barr met with Alaska Native leaders from around the state Wednesday in Anchorage to discuss law enforcement challenges in rural Alaska.

Barr will spend four days traveling around Alaska, learning about the unique challenges rural areas, particularly villages, face.

“Because of its vast size and because of the diverse communities and because of the lack sometimes of easy transportation, it created a lot of serious law enforcement challenges,” Barr said. “And it piqued my interest.”

At a roundtable discussion at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Barr heard from Native leaders about high rates of violence towards Native women and children, the lack of law enforcement in many communities and the limited funding for the resources that currently exist.

“Imagine picking up the phone and calling for help in an emergency, knowing that help is hours away and may be dependent on weather,” said Northwest Arctic Borough mayor Lucy Nelson. She was one of the leaders who met with Barr.

“Enough is enough,” said Victor Joseph of the Tanana Chiefs Conference during his testimony.

“We can’t accept these problems as being normal for life in Alaska,” Ralph Andersen of the Bristol Bay Native Association told Barr.

“I believe we are the solution. I believe the tribes are the solution,” said Richard Peterson of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “And I believe, if we’re properly funded and we’re able to build the infrastructure we need, we’re the answer.”

Hard to get federal resources

Many of the leaders noted that it’s often hard to qualify for federal resources because of legal confusion between federal Indian Country law and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Barr agrees.

“I understand exactly what you say and I get frustrated too when all these little categories… ‘well they don’t qualify because of this’ and so forth,” Barr said. “I’d like to try and marshal what we have and address the problem.”

Barr described the Wednesday meeting as the first of several he’d like to hold in the state or in Washington D.C. to help address problems in Native communities.

Justice department officials wouldn’t go into full detail about the attorney general’s itinerary in Alaska, but a spokesman for Senator Dan Sullivan says Barr will travel to Galena on Thursday and will visit the Yukon-Kuskokwim hub of Bethel and the village of Napaskiak on Friday.

Barr declined to answer a reporter question about statements White House Special Counsel Robert Mueller made Wednesday on whether or not President Donald Trump had broken the law and aided in Russian interference of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Mueller says that his investigation did not exonerate the president.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls set to present final report in June, CBC News

Finland: UN Committee blasts Finland over electorate ruling for Sami Parliament, Yle News

United States: Could Alaska’s rural Indigenous communities fight violence with broader law enforcement powers?, Alaska Public Media

Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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