'Choose Respect' and tribal sovereignty

Gov. Sean Parnell recently published an op-ed urging Alaskans to “Choose Respect.” It is insulting to domestic violence victims in Alaska when the governor’s use of that campaign slogan serves merely to distract from a set of policies, which would — if the governor is successful — make domestic violence worse for victims. If Parnell wishes to “Choose Respect,” he should start with the actions of his own administration.


Recently, Parnell tried to reverse a Minto tribal court decision to protect an abused wife from her husband. As the Anchorage Daily News documented, Parnell used taxpayer dollars in litigation that, had it been successful, could have exposed this woman and her family to yet another round of abuse from a husband who almost killed her in the past. Why did Parnell use taxpayer dollars to defend a “wife-beater,” as the ADN described the abuser? Because attacking tribal sovereignty took priority over reducing domestic violence.

It is not hard to understand that Parnell has his priorities backwards. First, a public official should never endanger the life or safety of his constituents in pursuit of an ideological goal, such as Parnell’s objective of undermining tribal sovereignty. Second, tribal sovereignty happens to be an essential tool to reduce domestic violence. Rural Alaskans understand quite well that in many villages, the only justice must be administered locally. Tribal courts are closest to the people and, in many cases, most able to respond to real public safety threats. Parnell’s lack of understanding of this elementary principle calls into question his commitment to principles of limited government and respect for local autonomy.

Sadly, the Minto case is not an isolated example of Parnell’s assault on tribal sovereignty. Under then-Attorney General Dan Sullivan, the Parnell administration attempted to reverse a Kaltag Tribal Council decision to remove an abused child from a habitually abusive mother and father. The council transferred custody to more responsible family members. Parnell, through Attorney General Sullivan, litigated to overturn this common sense decision of the tribal court.

Fortunately, the courts have rejected Parnell’s attempts to undermine tribal sovereignty. Parnell lost both the Minto and Kaltag cases, though not before wasting untold thousands of taxpayer dollars on these lawsuits. There is a long set of legal precedent that protects tribal sovereignty. In contrast to Parnell’s lawsuits, Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski have introduced legislation to strengthen tribal sovereignty, with the express purpose of preventing domestic violence. Their legislation is entitled the “Safe Villages, Safe Families Act.”

Rather than pursue a narrow-minded vendetta against tribal sovereignty, Parnell should “Choose Respect” himself. First, choose respect for victims of domestic violence. Their safety, not a political agenda, should be the governor’s priority. Second, choose respect for local courts tribal courts which have both a compelling need and the local knowledge necessary to protect rural Alaskans from domestic violence. Now is the time for the governor to move from speeches to substance, lest Alaskans lose respect for his hypocritical rhetoric.

• Marina R. Anderson is grand officer of the Alaska Native Sisterhood.


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