Debate rages over tribal sovereignty and Chickaloon policing authority expansion

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1919
Chickaloon Post Office. Photo credit: Jimmy Benson via Flickr.

There is no shortage of opinion in Sutton and Chickaloon about a plan by the Alaska Department of Public Safety to grant limited special commissions to law enforcement officers employed by the Chickaloon Tribal Police Department. Supporters see it as a step toward full sovereignty, in line with actual Indian reservations. Opponents point out that most of the people in the area are not members of the tribe and should not come under tribal policing authority.

A recent decision to expand the authority comes after months of deliberation, public meetings, and ongoing discussions regarding tribal jurisdiction and law enforcement authority in the state.

The announcement, made during a community meeting held on April 9 that was held at the request of the Sutton Community Council, outlined the terms and scope of the special commissions. According to DPS representatives, the special commission authority will empower trained and vetted tribal police officers to enforce certain State of Alaska criminal laws within a defined geographic area.

Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding between DPS and select members of the Chickaloon Police Department, officers will be authorized to address State of Alaska Title 11 misdemeanor crimes, misconduct involving controlled substances, and sex trafficking offenses. However, the enforcement will be limited in scope, with no authority granted for traffic enforcement, traffic stops, or vehicle pursuits.

The decision to grant these special commissions has sparked debate within the community, particularly regarding the implications for tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction. Some residents, such as Sutton resident Chris Spitzer, have voiced concerns about the process and criteria used in determining tribal jurisdiction.

Spitzer highlighted discrepancies between census data and the criteria outlined for Alaska Native Village Statistical Areas, expressing skepticism about the application of tribal authority within the Chickaloon ANVSA. He pointed to guidelines recommending preference for tribes with predominantly Native populations and those lacking a permanent state law enforcement presence.

“While the intention behind granting these special commissions may be well-meaning, there are legitimate questions about the accuracy and appropriateness of the jurisdictional boundaries,” Spitzer stated in a letter addressed to DPS. He cited this U.S. Census data.

Proposed boundary for the Chickaloon Tribal Police. Map by Alaska Department of Public Safety.

The Sutton Community Council has written in the past to oppose the expansion of tribal police authority, saying “a tribe without a reservation, on the connected road system, in a community that is more than 80% non-native should not be considered for statewide police powers. Currently the only tribal police department with recognized authority in the State of Alaska is in Metlakatla, which is also the only reservation in the state and recognized as a police department because of this special circumstance.” Metlakatka is isolated on Annette Island in the Prince of Wales-Hyde Census Area.

“What CVTC is asking for is to change the law in a way that is not only unprecedented in Alaska, it is not something that can be found in any state in the union on the level in which they are proposing. This kind of statute change would affect the entire state and should be reviewed by all legislators, with input from their constituents, before any decisions are made. It is also important to note that the responsibility for such a change falls to the State of Alaska and not the sovereign governments seeking the authority. (American Bar, n.d.) (UAF, n.d.),” the community council wrote in 2022.

DPS emphasized that the decision to grant special commissions was made in accordance with current policies and directives from DPS Commissioner James E. Cockrell. There are limitations of the current commissioner’s authority over future commissioners and their agreements between tribal entities and the federal government.

The announcement of the special commissions is one aspect in ongoing efforts to address the complexities of tribal jurisdiction and law enforcement in Alaska. Stakeholders are grappling with the need to balance public safety and tribal sovereignty, all within the constitutional and statutory rule of law.

Chickaloon has been working hand-in-hand with EarthJustice, a radical legal firm, to oppose the Wishbone Hill Coal Mine.

“We just want to do what we’ve always done,” said Shawna Larson, a member of the tribal council who first approached Earthjustice about taking their case. “We’re fighting for our way of life – for who we’ve always been,” she told EarthJustice.

(Thanks to Carol Carman for compiling the information for District 29, which is summarized in this news article).

31 COMMENTS

  1. Many years ago, the Mentasta Native area “police” were stopping vehicles including commercial trucks on the Tok Cutoff. Not sure what happened, however to my knowledge, the practice ceased long ago.

  2. Chickloon Tribe is not soverign. Their elders signed the deal for 44 million acres just like the rest of the Alaska Native tribes with the exception of Metlakatla Reservation on Annette. This whole tribal police idea is the brainchild of Donna Anthony and one of the Tribal leadership. There are maybe 300 Alaska Natives in the Chickaloon tribe most of whom do not want tribal police. I heard they wanted authority to travel anywhere in the state to arrest or detain tribal members. This is a land-grab by a relatively minor tribe and it needs to be nipped in the butt rfn. I am all for Native Associations and Village Corporations as well as the Native lands that were granted them. But only around 20% of Alaskans are more than 1/8th native and this type of divisiveness will create more problems than it will ever solve.

    • I share your sentiment. Our tribal organizations should absolutely work with AST to ensure state laws are being followed, but this authority is overreach. There is a reason our law enforcement officers must be trained to the highest of standards, so there is no bias and it’s abundantly clear to members of the public who enforces the laws. This decision is not prudent and sets a precedent our state does not need. The public traveling the Glenn Highway will not understand what’s happening if a tribal police officer attempts to engage in anything enforcement related. There’s too much turnover in tribal employment, too much local politics, and there’s simply no reason for this in a community that’s by and large not tribal in nature. Why create divisiveness where none needs to be? Why not hire on tribal police officers as part-time AST aides or Village Police Officers where there’s a recognized chain of command for the employees and the public? Governor Dunleavy needs to intervene and put a stay on this decision.

  3. How would the tribe (Chief Gary Harrison) have treated member Bruce Harrison when he recklessly endangered he ours on the raft when he accused them of tresspassing and knocked them in the river in 2017?

    I am glad Alaska State Troopers responded o that incident.

    Last time I drove the Chickaloon/Chickaloon branch rd loop, it was lined with many challenging signs. Drive it to see. Not exactly a welcoming place

  4. “We just want to do what we’ve always done”, which is nothing but be belligerent and unfriendly on the taxpayer’s money.

    • Presumably, “Doing what we’ve always done” includes enjoying all the fruits of the white man’s civilization, such as driving fossil-fueled vehicles, using electrical appliances, living in non-semi-subterranean houses with windows, floors and plumbing, etc. etc.

      Wait, what, you say, those things are NOT traditional indigenous first people’s inventions? Well, if they are not going to be raging hypocrites, they need to surrender and give up every one of those things in exchange for their “sovereignty”, right?

      The woke hypocrisy and double standards surrounding native peoples, especially in Alaska, is literally off the charts.

  5. “…….I heard they wanted authority to travel anywhere in the state to arrest or detain tribal members. This is a land-grab by a relatively minor tribe……..”
    The Harrisons and Wades have been working this scam ever since ANSCA. When Lt. Joseph Castner led his expedition up the Matanuska River and beyind from Knik in 1898, his journals recorded nobody living in the Chickaloon area. Their “tribal police” department originated with grants from the 1993 Clinton Administration “community police law enforcement strategy”, which was truly an ideological marriage ideal for both sides. It was likely a Chickaloon hope that thier own police powers would eliminate the Harrisons from so regularly being arrested by Troopers for their constant political antics, and it appears to have worked like a charm. Now they want to empower it even more, like you believe, to essentially create power over the land itself, even if already private. A glance at CIRI’s lands map shows native lands on the south sideoif the Matanuska River, and few lands on the north side, where Chickaloon is trying to expand their police powers. The Chickaloon website offers no maps of village lands. That ought to be a clue………

  6. .. in accordance with current policies and directives from DPS Commissioner James E. Cockrell.

    Someone should challenge this policing authority expansion in court since policies and directives by a Department Commissioner are not laws of the State nor Alaska statutes. The Alaska Statutes are the laws of the state as passed by the legislature.

  7. DOJ is pushing this for another Federal Police Force! I think State of Ak is nervous and trying to get it under control before all Hell breaks loose

  8. Where will these Tribal police receive their paychecks through? The US federal government? The State of Alaska public safety? How’s this tribal sovereignty while pay comes through a parent source. When US Federal government goes kaput, then there goes all the states federal money. The states whose people work the hardest and it produces the most will be the strongest to pull themselves back together again because of being the lesser states being dependent on a federal government parent.

    • “ Where will these Tribal police receive their paychecks through? The US federal government? The State of Alaska public safety?……..”
      They’re going to tax their neighbors, few of whom are members of their “tribe”.

  9. No. The constant gimme land gimme money gimme authority is ridiculous. I do not recognize thier authority and would never let them exercise it. Nobody should.

  10. Funded by the FED trained by the FED.
    Local Gov has no say or voice in the matter.
    DPS James E Cockrell gets to make the decision for the whole Valley!
    What if the Tribal police want to come on a Non Native persons land? Will they get a State Warrant or make up a Tribal Warrant?
    What if they do try to pull you over…. I’m not stopping, Ill be calling them into the Troopers/Police and lead them into the Alaska Police Station, thank you very much!

  11. Legislators, please amend the Alaska Constitution to not only protect our permanent fund dividends but to elect an attorney general and sheriffs.

    Alaska is a mandatory P.L. 280 State with concurrent jurisdictions throughout the State except the reservation Metlakatla. What about policing on Native Allotment lands?

    We the people for the people need to elect the Alaska Attorney General.
    We the people for the people and the protection of our U.S. and Alaska Constitutional Rights need to elect Sheriffs.

    Its all about the public safety and well-being of every individual and of the utmost importance our children and grandchildren.

  12. One could be forgiven for wondering whether this newfound urgency for “tribal sovereignty” and “policing authority” might be related to qualifying for a piece of the “Justice Department to Award More Than $96.7 Million in Grants to American Indian and Alaska Native Communities” pie.
    (‘https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-award-more-967-million-grants-american-indian-and-alaska-native)

  13. Good. This issue will help more non-native voters appreciate the risk of not being given a fair trial or tried before a jury of their peers. The reality of Thomas Jack, Jr., and many other Alaska Natives may be coming to non-native homes soon.

    Every Alaskan should be concerned, just not Chickaloon residents. Our state is heading in a direction where each of the 230 tribes will have their own police force and tribal court. This is the foreseeable result of decades of failed State policy that has made Alaska Natives easy targets to fill our prisons.

    How do we avoid this chaotic, lawless scenario? Demanding the state’s criminal justice system apply justice equally and backing it up with our votes. Requiring state officials to show their good faith by immediately correcting their blatant violations of Mr. Jack’s constitutional rights. Our system isn’t defendable until then.

  14. The Glenn Hwy traverses through native land? Does this mean that if the natives might set up toll booths to travel through their land? I think of the Chickaloon lands and Eklutna lands for starters.

  15. It is sort of like saying “Andersonville may have police powers but Johnsonville? No.”. So suss to even think it over. We are all American countrymen, free and equal. We have a duty to our nation to love our countrymen. United we stand. Teach your kids that.

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