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"Being on the Indian Affairs Committee is a huge opportunity and having two of us on there from the same state adds to our ability to get some things done for Alaska Natives."

Sen. Begich Speaks Out on Indian & Alaska Native Concerns

Rob Capriccioso
2/26/14

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) has served in the Senate since January 2009. During his time in office he has become an increasingly forceful advocate on Alaska Native and American Indian issues, playing a major role in getting the Obama administration to promise this month that it will reimburse full contract support costs to tribes in both 2014 and 2015 after a major debacle last year where the White House tried to cap reimbursements. He has also notably held up President Barack Obama’s re-nomination of Yvette Roubideaux as the director of the Indian Health Service, heeding tribal questions about her lacking consultation and leadership decisions, and he has protected Alaska Native Corporations, while making strong commitments to tribes in the lower 48 states about defending their sovereign interests as well.

In a candid interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Begich shares how he is now turning his sights on achieving a 100 percent clean Carcieri fix to the controversial 2009 Supreme Court decision that negatively impacts tribal trust lands, fixing the broken justice system for Alaska Natives, and he vows not to be partisan in considering the nomination of Cherokee Nation citizen Keith Harper to become a U.N. human rights ambassador.

You joined the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs just over a year ago, and we are now in the midst of a leadership shuffle where Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) recently took over the gavel from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) What do you make of this transition?

Being on the Indian Affairs Committee is a huge opportunity and having two of us on there from the same state adds to our ability to get some things done for Alaska Natives. I think Maria Cantwell has done a great job. I think Jon Tester is a very strong proponent of Indian country and really understands the issues. I’ve brought him up to Alaska twice already. He has a very good and strong understanding of Alaska, which is a huge plus from my perspective. I have heard that he wants to have a hearing on our Safe Families and Villages Act, which is very important. This legislation attempts to fix the Alaska Native exclusion from the Violence Against Women Act [VAWA] reauthorization [of 2013]. Jon Tester has already identified this as a priority, so we’re very excited about that.

Regarding the Safe Families and Villages Act, many tribal advocates are concerned that your legislation doesn’t go as far for Alaska Natives as the VAWA reauthorization goes in giving enhanced jurisdiction to tribes over non-Indian domestic violence offenders in the lower 48 states.

I 100 percent agree with that. As a matter of fact, my original legislation had that language, but in order to get a co-sponsor, we had to soften the language. My hope is when we have the hearing that the tribes will be able to lay on the table what they want to see improved on this. I will be the first to make the amendments necessary to make the bill stronger or similar to what I offered last year. Honestly, though, we couldn’t get the state of Alaska to agree with my original legislation. The state is objecting to our tribes having the ability to deal with criminal justice in their communities. The current governor, the lieutenant governor, and the former attorney general – oddly enough, two of those guys are running against me – have no interest. We had to soften it for the state to at least be somewhat neutral at this point, but also to get a Republican co-sponsor. We are anxious to include tribal ideas within the committee substitute legislation after the first hearing. The problem with this place is sometimes you have to soften it in order to get the hearing, and now that we’re going to get the hearing, we can strengthen it. Honestly, at the end of the day, I don’t care what the state of Alaska says.

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