Village Alaska: Community Characteristics and Public Safety

Village Alaska: Community Characteristics and Public Safety

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. "Village Alaska: Community Characteristics and Public Safety." Alaska Justice Forum 12(4): 1, 6-8 (Winter 1996). In early 1995 Justice Center researchers conducted on-site interviews with residents and officials of 28 Alaska villages to gather information about village public safety and policing needs. This, the first of several articles examining results of the study, describes characteristics, government, and social control in the predominately Alaska Native villages.

In early 1995, the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage conducted an on-site survey of 28 Alaska villages to gather information about village safety and policing needs. The survey was part of a three-phase project undertaken by the Center in conjunction with the Alaska Department of Public Safety. This and future Forum articles will examine the results of the study, which assembled information from community leaders and other residents. Data collection included (1) compilation of documents and other information related to each community; (2) interviews with city officials and Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) council members in each village and (3) interviews with other residents in each community. The interviews with officials elicited background information about the community and its government as well as about public safety issues. This article will present a summary discussion of village social and governing structures as they are perceived in relation to public safety.

The communities surveyed were selected after consideration of suggestions from Native leaders, participants in the Alaska Federation of Natives conference, the Alaska Native Justice Center and the Alaska State Troopers. Eleven of the Alaska Native regional corporations are represented. The Arctic Slope region was not included because its villages receive complete public safety services from their own borough public safety agency rather than from the Alaska State Troopers, Village Police Officers (VPOs) or Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs).

Community Characteristics

The villages studied are in isolated locations 10 to 100 air miles from an urban center, with few road connections to other communities (Figure 1). They range in size from approximately 70 to over 700 residents (based on 1990 Census data). Residents are predominately Alaska Native, although the proportion of Native residents ranges from 98.3 per cent in Lower Kalskag to less than 7 per cent Native in Chickaloon (Table 1). The average (mean) Native population is approximately 82 per cent and the median proportion of Natives in the community population is 93.8 per cent. This means that in 14 of the 28 villages, 94 per cent or more of the residents are Native.

Figure 1. Communities Surveyed (map)

Most villages have few permanent employment opportunities in the community, and cash employment positions with schools and other organizations in the communities have historically been dominated by non-Natives. Many residents rely heavily on hunting, fishing, and the collection of wild food for portions of their diets. In some communities, such as in the NANA region, which has the Red Dog Mine, employment opportunities do exist, but many residents must work outside their home villages. This situation reportedly results in significant numbers of working-age males regularly being away from their villages at work sites.

Even in those villages with available wage-paying jobs, residents often engage in hunting, fishing and/or food-gathering subsistence activities. Many adult village residents consider their subsistence activities to be their preferred and basic work obligations, requiring an extensive commitment of time, focus and effort.

The buildings and facilities of the typical village surveyed are modest by contemporary urban standards. Nearly all of the communities have a general store, usually run by the local government. Similarly, most have a local school and housing for teachers (who are often non-Native). Native "teacher aides" from the local community are employed in almost every school. Most villages have well-maintained runways for regular air service. Every community has an office facility for the city and, in some instances, the tribal government officials, although in one case this office is located in a nearby town. These facilities are equipped with telephones, copy and fax machines, and other office equipment.

One of the most conspicuous differences between the current village situation and that found in the late 1970s in another study conducted by the Alaska State Troopers and the Justice Center is in the area of communication technology. In the late 1970s a single radio telephone in a village was not uncommon, and fax machines did not exist. A second notable difference is the increase in aircraft available for routine and emergency transportation between communities. The addition of this technology has greatly enhanced the potential for public safety services.


Table 1. Demographics in Surveyed Communities


Most of the 28 villages are incorporated under Alaska law as first or second class cities. Unincorporated villages have established IRA or traditional councils administering local governmental affairs. Most of the first or second class city governments were incorporated to obtain state services and funds in the early 1970s. These governments often continue to share authority with the councils, which have formally existed since well before Alaska statehood, and in many villages these governing groups have members in common. The power distribution among these entities varies from community to community. City councils usually play the leadership role in dealing with the agencies of the State of Alaska while the IRA councils deal primarily with federal agencies. IRA councils have responsibility for juvenile matters under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and they manage trust lands in the community. In addition, they frequently provide a variety of grant-funded social services for the village. The village city councils usually manage public safety, road and facility maintenance, sewage and utility services, and similar fundamental government functions. Many villages employ at least one Village Police Officer (VPO) and are also served by a resident state-funded Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO).

In some instances the official members and the goals of both the city and IRA councils are the same, but in others the members and goals differ. The relationships can be very complex, and in a few cases these bodies are in competition.

The responsibilities, relationships and powers of various governing groups in Native communities across the state vary greatly and, in some cases, shift dramatically over short periods of time. Information about such shifts is seldom given wide dissemination outside a community and is frequently not documented in state or regional publications. Consequently, nonresidents and outside agencies wishing to have effective relationships with local governments in Native communities must maintain continuous contact and face-to-face communication to understand community functioning and the changes which occur in the community government structure.

The village governments have a wide variety of income sources, most of which produce relatively limited amounts of money to support government operations. The most significant source of support is state-provided funds. State funds are supplemented by federal grants and contracts and city-run enterprises and businesses, such as washeterias, bingo and pulltabs, public utilities, and stores. However, no matter how creative the community in obtaining resources to support public safety, nearly all the communities surveyed are short of money to pay for routine local public safety operations.


Social Control

Most villages have established local ordinances and rules to handle behavior deemed undesirable by the local community or its officials. The nature of these rules and the degree of their formal codification vary from community to community. In a few instances, community officials spoke freely about written tribal or village rules and their use; however, they frequently would not provide a copy of these rules to interviewers.

Most of the villages have developed and regularly use local_sometimes extralegal_social control mechanisms. Although only a few communities have "tribal" courts in operation, officials in nearly all villages indicate the concept is being implemented or considered for use. The officials in one community reported having a tribal court and a tribal bar association consisting of lay-lawyers. Residents accused of law violations are given a choice of being tried by the tribal court or being referred to troopers for arrest and trial in a state court. Tribal court sentences comprise fines and community service, such as helping the elderly in the village, cleaning public facilities, and working on community construction. Those serving tribal court sentences in the community are supervised by a Village Police Officer.

This same community also reported having established a children's court. On this court three elders oversee incidents related to misconduct such as curfew violations, juvenile drinking, stealing, and gasoline sniffing. This group relies heavily on counseling and discussions with the offender and the offender's family. The most severe sentence imposed on offending teenagers involves emptying honey buckets for residents.

In another community, the first and second chiefs of the tribal council have assumed responsibility for behavior control actions on behalf of the community. They reportedly follow the rules in a "tribal handbook," and they are assisted by local Native "security guards" whom the tribal council has hired at $140 per week. These officials indicated that they enforce only "tribal law" violations which occur in the village or on adjacent land claimed as the traditional subsistence area of their people. Offenses committed by village residents elsewhere in the state and offenses involving local, state or federal property (e.g., breaking and entry of the school or post office and warrants for offenses committed in Anchorage or Fairbanks) are left to the Alaska State Troopers. However, village officials insist upon accompanying and assisting troopers who come into the village to investigate or serve papers.

These chiefs also stated that people coming into their village, including state officials, are randomly searched for alcohol and drugs. In addition, since most people in this village are lifelong residents and, by custom, walk freely into each other's homes, the chiefs seem to feel comfortable in entering any home, unannounced, to check on reported misconduct or alcohol possession.

This village is particularly interesting because its officials claim to use sentencing standards which can result in lifetime banishment from the village. For example, a resident judged in a hearing by the council as drunk or disorderly is given a fine of $75 for a first occurrence, a fine of $150 for a second incident, and a "blue ticket" for a third or subsequent incident. The first "blue ticket" action banishes the offender for a minimum of three months, after which time he can be readmitted upon submission to the council of a written apology and a request for readmission. A second "blue ticket" is similar, except the banishment is for a minimum of six months. A third "blue ticket" action indicates permanent banishment. The process has reportedly been applied only to "tribe" members; "non-enrolled" people who are found drinking alcohol or being disorderly are sent out of the village after a single offense.

The officials of this village and those in many other communities claim to have developed their own system because they do not believe the state has effectively addressed community problems. Among the most frequently occurring problems which community officials claim to have made progress in correcting are (1) alcohol importation, possession, and distribution; (2) curfew violations; (3) dog control; (4) misuse of firearms; (5) misuse of citizen band radios; and (6) disorderly conduct and interpersonal violence. They have had less success in dealing with nonresidents such as the pilots, guides, and hunters claimed to be trespassing in their territory.


The current governmental arrangements reflect spontaneous resourcefulness as much as comprehensive design. Most of the communities studied either have or are in the process of developing a sense of direction which reflects a commitment to the familiar rural village life patterns and links to the society outside the village boundaries.

Most of the villages in this survey have seemingly well-understood community social control methods to handle problems beyond the scope of family responsibility. These methods sometimes do not reflect the western legal system and lack articulated recognition from the Alaska Department of Public Safety, the Alaska Court System, and most other governmental organizations. The village social control systems tend, however, to be confined primarily to dealing with disruptive behavior in the community. Criminal acts which the state has defined as high-priority criminal behavior are nearly always referred by the village to the state.

Future Forum articles will examine specific public safety data obtained from the survey. Copies of the entire report may be obtained from the Justice Center at UAA for a nominal cost.