A new report says Alaska Natives are murdered at a rate much higher than Native Americans in any other state.
As a national group, American Indians and other Natives do not fall victim to murder at any higher rate than the general population, the report said. But in Alaska, they do.
From 1976 to 1996, Alaska Native people accounted for 28 percent of all murder victims - a percentage much higher than any other state and much higher than number of Natives in the overall population, 15.5 percent in 1996.
The report, Victimization among American Native Peoples, was issued recently by the Alaska Justice Forum at the University of Alaska Anchorage. It notes that the rate of violent victimization in Alaska in general is ``more than twice as high as the national average.''
Mike Williams, chairman of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, said violence against Natives is in part the result of low law enforcement staffing in villages.
In Anchorage, he said, police often respond to calls for help within five or 10 minutes.
``Sometimes we wait for a few days to a week to get a response from the
Alaska State Troopers because they are spread so thin,'' Williams said from Akiak, where the only local law enforcement is a lowpaid, two-hour-a-day police officer.
Robin Lown, program manager for the Tlingit-Haida Central Council's Village Public Safety Officer program, said low law enforcement staffing, poverty and alcohol abuse are contributing factors to violence in rural areas. Improvements would mean better equipment, better training and greater authority, he said.
Victimization in urban areas, specifically Anchorage, stems from discrimination and racism, he said.
``In my estimation, urban residents do show racism,'' said Lown, who worked for the troopers for 23 years before becoming VPSO manager. ``They look at Native people as less intelligent, as not the equal of non-Natives.''
Both troopers and village public safety officers are state employees, but VPSOs get less training. Troopers received 1,130 hours of training; VPSOs, only 200 hours. There are only seven VPSOs in Southeast Alaska and some towns have said they don't want them.
``We have attempted to put VPSOs into some communities, and they have turned them down, because `There is nothing going on here, and they would be snooping into peoples' business.' Basically what it amounts to is that they don't want law enforcement out there in places like Elfin Cove and Hollis,'' Lown said.
Williams, of the Alaska InterTribal Council, said many Bush villages in his part of the state have asked for increased enforcement. Pushing lawmakers and policy-makers to increase staffing is one of the goals of a lawsuit filed by the council and other groups Oct. 25 in Dillingham, he said.
The suit charges the difference in the level of protection violates the equal protection guarantees in state and federal constitutions. The suit further charges the state's spending on law enforcement unfairly discriminates against Native villages.
``Regardless of where anybody lives, they deserve adequate police protection,'' Williams said. ``But the amount of police in the villages is a void right now because of the shortages of money.''
Ron Otte, state Public Safety Department commissioner, said he doesn't doubt that Alaska Natives represent a higher percentage of the criminal justice system than they are a percentage of the population. And he said law enforcement in rural areas has dropped - from 125 VPSOs in 1984 to 84 today, along with fewer troopers.
``There is no question we are not doing as good a job (of law enforcement) as we should,'' Otte said. ``But the problem is statewide; not just a rural issue.''
Otte agreed that more law enforcement is needed in rural areas. But he challenged other assumptions of the suit.
``A lot of conclusions . . . are not justified or are completely untrue,'' he said.
Federal figures from the fiveyear period 1992-1996 show there is a violent crime rate among American Indians - a group defined to include Alaska Natives - of 124 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older, a rate about 2.5 times the national rate. More recent figures were not available.
The Native American population of Alaska is growing, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau and state Department of Labor. In 1992, there were 91,933 Native Americans, 15.7 percent of the population. In 1996, Native Americans numbered 99,638, or 16.5 percent of the total Alaska population of 604,966.
Empire editor Ed Schoenfeld contributed to this article.