Friday, November 7, 2014

Crime and law enforcement in rural Alaska's native communities

After watching "Incident at Oglala" -- the documentary showcasing the tensions and events surrounding the 1975 shootout between a group of Native Americans and two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation -- I became interested in the unique challenges faced by Native American rural communities with regard to law enforcement. I stumbled upon several articles discussing the lack of a strong law enforcement presence in rural areas of Alaska. Rural Alaska has the worst crime statistics in the United States. Native American communities in rural Alaska experience the highest rates of domestic violence. Moreover, Alaska is the rape capital of the country, with rape occurring at three times the national average.

Alaska's high crime statistics are exacerbated by spatiality. 229 of the country's 566 recognized tribes are located in Alaska, most of them in Alaska's "Bush" regions -- the areas of Alaska not connected to the road or ferry systems. Most of the areas in the Bush that are not accessible by roads can be reached only by a small airplane, while locals typically travel by snowmobile, dogsled, and boat.

Associate Attorney General Tony West recently stated that "there are places in rural Alaska that if a woman is raped or a child is beaten, that victim might not get any help can take a day and a half before responders show up to the scene of a crime or to a call for help." Because they have no police and few courts of their own, Alaskan natives in the Bush regions largely rely on state troopers, who are few and far between. Moreover, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers stated that the terrain and distance between troopers and rural areas delay responses to crime reports. As a result, locals are often forced to take matters into their own hands before law enforcement officials arrive to a crime scene. For example, when a 13-year-old native Tlingit girl named Mackenzie Howard was beaten to death in rural Kake last February, a villager gathered other locals to guard Howard's body and the crime scene before troopers from arrived from Juneau, 114 miles away. In other towns, locals have been forced to lock suspects in closets or handcuff them until law enforcement officials arrive.

Moreover, the lack of a strong law enforcement presence in rural areas of Alaska perpetuates crime. Perpetrators are less likely to fear the consequences of their crimes and are more likely to get away with them. As Mackenzie Howard's mother stated, "[p]eople don't really fear the law here." Some native Alaskans believe that the remoteness of law enforcement from rural areas also attracts criminals.  

Something that stood out to me while reading the articles on crime in rural Alaska was what appears to be a strong feeling of resentment on the part of native Alaskans to the delayed response of law enforcement officials (or, in some cases, their lack of response). Multiple native Alaskans have expressed a common sentiment among communities in the Bush regions -- that they only feel the full force of law enforcement when somebody commits a hunting or fishing violation. As one villager stated, "[t]he fastest way to get law enforcement here is to shoot a moose." 

This resentment toward and distrust of law enforcement in native Alaskan communities reminds me of the tensions surrounding the incident on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Here, as there, the native communities have been forced rely on themselves for maintaining some sense of order, as seen with the creation of ad hoc law enforcement teams to guard crime scenes and evidence. Moreover, as on the Pine Ridge Reservation, many residents of rural Alaskan communities feel the need for self-protection with the lack of nearby police and troopers. For example, in the wake of the Howard murder, several residents of Kake began carrying guns with them. Furthermore, as with the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s, the violence and crime in rural Alaska is not eliciting a sufficient response from law enforcement or the government at large. After all, what brought Pine Ridge Reservation to the attention of many Americans was the fact that two outsiders, FBI agents, were killed in the midst of a shootout -- not the fact that Pine Ridge had the highest rates of violent crime in the United States at the time. Will the violent crime in rural Alaska similarly go largely unnoticed and unaddressed? Are conditions in the Bush regions ripe for another Pine Ridge incident?

For more information on challenges faced by rural Alaskans with regard to spatial isolation and self-reliance, click here (discussing the difficulty of delivering medical services to rural Alaskans).


Charlie said...

Thank you for your illustrative post. Usually, when I think of crime, I think of it as a major issue in urban areas, especially in the inner city neighborhoods of large cities. However, like you said, Alaska (with its very rural population) has one of the worst crime statistics in the country. Crime is definitely not limited to the major population centers. The film Winter's Bone also showcased this; there, we saw examples of organized crime, drug use, and of course, murder. These are issues that urban areas face, but the films that we see in class are reminders that the same crimes that happen in cities are just as present in rural areas.

Damon Alimouri said...
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Damon Alimouri said...
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Damon Alimouri said...

I like this post. I wonder why Alaskans feel that law enforcement responds quickly only when a fishing or hunting violation has been committed. Probably because that's the truth.

This raises a question. Why is the response to those violations faster than the response to violations involving human beings?

I am willing to propose that those violations are dealt with the full extent of the law because they somehow impact some sort of agricultural or moneyed interest.

In urban areas, it is widely and accurately believed by inner-city inhabitants that police do not respond quickly to 911 calls in the area. While, on the other hand, if someone in a middle-class suburb calls the police, the police are there in no time.

I believe it was New York Times author Greg Palast that said we have the best democracy money can buy. He's right.

Enrique Fernandez said...

Interesting post. Your description of how tribal members and locals will handle the law enforcement of crimes because of their isolated status reminded me of stories about my grandfather acting as a local sheriff in Mexico back in the 1940s and 1950s. Isolation seems to be a real problem for rural Alaskans ability to obtain the justice the need.

Do you know if the federal government or the BIA have made any attempt to alleviate the isolation problem for rural Alaskan natives with regards to enforcing laws?

Juliana said...

It doesn't seem like the federal government has made any attempt to alleviate the social isolation problem. In fact, Kake, the rural town referenced in the post, has an 80 percent unemployment rate, and the one-man police department closed 35 years ago due to lack of funding. Like many rural communities, Kake suffers from substance abuse and domestic violence. Perhaps these issues that are intensified in Alaska because of the extreme spatial isolation and particularities of law enforcement's relationship with Native populations.

More information at:

Kate said...

Avha, great post! I have no idea of the crime statistics in Alaska. It is a little disturbing to think that there might be a correlation between police response to violent crimes and The fact that the population is primarily Native American. Perhaps the lack of law enforcement has to do with the rough Alaskan terrain, or perhaps it has to do with the fact that police may not be sent to Native American communities. Whatever the reason, it is clear from your blog that action must be taken. Thanks for the post.

Kate Hanley said...

Damon, I'll bet you that there's better response for game incidents than human incidents because they might go through different offices, and there might be more employees hired to handle things like game issues. Game issues might not be a moneyed interest per se, but if the government has more resources to allocate toward it than other crimes, you're going to see a difference. I have no evidence for this, so please correct me. That's just where I would look first.

The possibility doesn't make the discrepancies in response times right, but it might offer another place to look to fix the problem.

Anonymous said...

The following isn't a substantive comment, but an emotional one that's been running through my mind when I've been generally thinking about crime in Native America. There may not be a good answer.

When the U.S. gives support, but you don't feel like you're a part of it (you didn't have a say in what they're doing, you don't have control over what they're doing, there's no accountability)... What kind of support is it? It feels like resentment is one of the nicer things that could be going through someone's head.

Agencies like the DoJ claim that they're doing better by Indian Country than they have in past, and they may very well be doing so, but it still feels like there's a large disconnect between what the U.S. gives and what Native Corporations, Tribes, individuals, et al. want and need. The U.S. seems to be striving to listen and become more accountable (and it is appreciated!), but it feels like the U.S. is still not close to bridging this gap. And even once there is accountability, there is going to be a *lot* of work necessary to build trust.