Heidi Vantrease doesn’t let her daughter go running without her father. It’s a shame, because the village of Kake, where Vantrease is the domestic violence and sexual assault program coordinator, is a surreally beautiful place to run. The village is built along a single road that parallels the coastline, with evergreens on one side and a calm ocean channel on the other, with pods of breaching orcas.
Its isolation–the indigenous community of less than 500 people is only accessible by ferry or tiny seaplane–adds to the beauty. And for for a long time people here saw this seclusion as a protection against the brutality of the outside world, even though law enforcement presence was so inconsistent they sometimes went years without it.
But over the past years, brutal crimes have rocked this small village, bringing a national problem of the lack of safety for indigenous women close to home for the people of Kake: 13-year-old year old Mackenzie Howard was murdered in 2015, and 19-year-old Jade Williams in 2017.
And so Heidi Vantrease’s daughter never runs alone.
“After the death of two young girls, only within several years apart, how can it not affect a town this size,” Vantrease said. “...[I’m] just trying to keep people safe.”
According to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, indigenous women suffer from violence at a rate two and a half times higher than that of any other population in the United States. One in three indigenous women will be raped in her lifetime; four in five will be victims of a violent assault, according to the same group. The term “Missing and murdered Indigenous women” was coined to describe the disproportionately high number of these women who go missing or are killed compared to other demographics. And in Alaska, advocates say the problem is compounded by the seclusion of indigenous communities, jurisdictional complications and a lack of state funds, which leave many communities with ineffective or nonexistent law enforcement.
The state of Alaska is huge—it could fit Virginia within it 15 times—and it contains 229 of the 566 federally recognized Native American tribes. Many of those are isolated on islands or in remote villages that are often inaccessible by road, particularly when the snow starts falling in autumn, and keeps on falling through March. State and tribal officials agree in an ideal world, each village would have its own law enforcement officer, but in reality funding is short, recruitment is difficult, and many villages are still without law enforcement. Alaskan indigenous communities like Kake have to wait hours, sometimes days, for state troopers to arrive by boat or plane when there’s an assault or murder.
For less serious crimes, villages have tried to fill in the gaps where they can. Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, answered emergency calls for free, unarmed.
“I’d go there, even though I don’t have any authority,” Jackson said. “They know that I’m there to make sure they’re ok, and tell them you got to get along.”
Not only was Jackson responding to calls and coordinating with state troopers without pay, he said he has walked into situations where weapons were involved. “But you know, if nobody else is going to do it, we can’t have it just be wide open for everybody to do what they want. So I go out and do it.
He recalls one incident when someone was firing a gun repeatedly and threatening violence. Jackson called the state troopers in Juneau to let them know what was going on before he approached. “They’d go, ‘Aren’t you scared?’” Jackson laughs at this. “Yea, of course I’m scared. But I’m still going to go.”
Although Kake, like any community, wasn’t completely free of crime, Tinker (Claribel) Williams, manager of the Keex’ Kwaan Lodge in Kake and no relation to Jade Williams, expressed that it seemed like they were managing.
“We thought we were living in this bubble where we all looked out for each other,” Williams said. This assumption was harshly challenged in the winter of 2013, when Mackenzie Howard was raped and murdered a few weeks after her 13th birthday.
Howard was a bright, personable kid, well-liked in her hometown, interested in her native history and learning the native language from her grandmother. If she had lived, her mother says, she would be fluent by now. She was found by the pastor’s wife, naked in the small white Presbyterian church across from her house. Her head had been struck so hard it could not be made recognizable for her family before her funeral. Since the village had no law enforcement, men from the village had to stand over the body for 11 hours to protect the crime scene while they waited for state troopers to fly into Kake.
“I know everyone’s tired of hearing this,” her mother, Marla Howard said, “but when a moose is shot,” she hits the table, “they’re right here. Even after Mackenzie, even after Jade, the troopers were still up the road protecting the moose while we had no law here. That was hard. It’s not right.”
Marla Howard is wearing a forest green sweatshirt, sitting in the conference room of the Organized Village of Kake. The walls of the room are decorated with carvings by local artists of the animals that live here, particularly eagles and ravens, which represent the two clans that live in Southeast Alaska for hundreds of years, Tlingit and Haida.
“I feel a little dizzy just sitting here,” she says.
She mentions a few times that her hands are shaking, as if her emotions are too big and indescribable and she wants to anchor them with something tangible. Mid-conversation her husband, Kip Howard, joins her in the room, tall and lanky in a thick workman’s jacket. He works the snowplow in the winter and keeps an eye on the clouds outside, joking that his mother was wrong when she said money didn’t fall from the sky. But for the most part, he lets his wife speak about their daughter while he stares somewhere past her, occasionally nodding in agreement, letting the tears roll silently down his face.
Howard’s case eventually was solved by the troopers who came in to investigate. Her attacker, a 14-year-old boy from Kake, was incarcerated for three years and now lives in Anchorage, according to Howard. The post-arrest process frustrated the Howards. They felt the judge didn’t try hard enough to get the truth of the details of the crime from the boy who killed their daughter, and the court proceedings seemed to take forever.
Howard says one of her friends in state government kept asking about the case, and she kept answering, “Nothing, nothing, nothing. She said if Mackenzie were a white girl it would’ve been taken care of already—and she’s a white lady way the heck up there.”
The state sometimes provides law enforcement to tribes through a state-tribal collaboration called the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program. The officers, as defined by Alaska’s Department of Public Safety are “first responders to public safety emergencies” like “search and rescue, fire protection, emergency medical assistance, crime prevention and basic law enforcement.” The VPSOs are hired by the regional tribal non-profit (in Southeast Alaska, that’s the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida, which encompasses several communities,) using Alaska Department of Public Safety funds, and trained and overseen by the Alaska state troopers. The multiple levels of oversight leaves some people confused as to who, exactly, the VPSOs are working for.
Plus, Village Public Safety Officers aren’t given the full authority of a true police officer. Jackson and Anthony Gastelum, Kake’s Tribal Court Coordinator, joked back and forth about the lack of authority the state grants VPSOs. They compare them to security guards, or monitors.
“It’s nothing against them, it’s just the way that it is,” Jackson said.
Despite the fact that the state passed a law arming VPSOs a few years ago, they remain unarmed until all 10 regional tribes in Alaska can agree on standard rules regulating officer gun use. Jason Wilson, VPSO Program Coordinator for the Tlingit and Haida tribes explains that the learning curve for the ten different tribes is also fairly steep, “You’re talking about non-law enforcement entities trying to operate a law enforcement program.”
Until the tribes can work out the procedures, the VPSOs are left with just a taser, pepper spray, and baton, and limited authority. Traffic stops are forbidden to officers entirely until they are armed, and they are advised to use their discretion on domestic violence calls, particularly when there’s only one VPSO in a village with no back-up.
“There’s two calls that are the most dangerous for any officer, DUIs—dealing with traffic stops in general, and dealing with domestic violence calls,” Wilson said. “Imagine being the sole person, not having the tools, and people are in a heightened state, their minds are altered to some degree, and there’s weapons in the house ... That’s what they deal with on a regular basis.”
While the safety of indigenous women is compromised across the country, the situation in Alaska is unique. When the U.S. settled the question of land rights in Alaska with the indigenous population in 1969, the land was given back to the people through “native corporations” the U.S. created, instead of reservations like in the lower 48. One important result is there is almost no “Indian country” jurisdiction in the Alaska–tribes don’t have jurisdiction based on land boundaries like they do in the rest of the country. Alaskan tribes must exercise jurisdiction through tribal membership.
For some indigenous Alaskans, like Judge Debra O’Gara, it’s important to assert that while the legal definition of "Indian Country" is concrete, the general definition is subjective.
“This concept of ‘no Indian country’ is a misnomer.” she explains. “First off, Indian country is all around us.... If you talk to the tribal governments in the state of Alaska, the entire state is Indian country. Now if you talk to the Alaska state government, current and past, Indian country is almost non-existent. So it really is a matter of perspective.”
But for most, it’s enough to know that the lack of legally defined Indian Country limits several paths to a safer environment for indigenous women. It makes it harder for tribes to run their own courts and exercise the power of those courts, which could make for speedier restraining orders and sentencing time. And it makes it difficult to access federal funding for tribal-run law enforcement, both because the tribes get less money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and because without reservation land, tribes cannot tax residents to raise money for public services.
Access to federal resources is also restricted by Alaska’s status as a what is known as a PL-280 state. In majority of the U.S. states, tribes have jurisdiction over indigenous offenders on reservations, and the federal government has jurisdiction over non-indigenous offenders and most serious crimes. However, in 11 PL-280 states, a 1953 law (Public Law 280) gave that federal criminal jurisdiction to states.
According to Chris Foley, an attorney at the Indian Law Resource Center, “historically at least, the federal government has refused to provide any federal funding for tribes to provide justice services in PL-280 states.” That makes the state the only source of law enforcement and Alaska, which is currently facing a $1.6 billion deficit, may not be prepared to carry the load.
In the other PL-280 states, if the state cannot afford law enforcement for indigenous communities, local police can still respond, Foley adds. “They may be far away, and they may in practice de-prioritize Indian country, but they are still there. In Alaska, when you have off-road communities without police officers, then there is no county sheriff or next-town over police officer who can drive in.”
With law enforcement so in demand, Amanda Price, Alaska’s commissioner of public safety, is trying to refocus the conversation not just on the VPSOs, but on increasing rural law enforcement more generally. That could mean a trying to push for more money from the BIA for tribal law enforcement, stationing an Alaska state trooper in area without other law enforcement, or partnering with local governments to help them develop their own police presence.
“Strengthening the VPSO program in itself is really challenging,” she said. “Strengthening rural public safety response, if you look at it from that perspective and nothing is off the table, I think that we’re going to come up with some innovative and creative strategies to make sure communities have law enforcement presence.”
While there are some communities that have enough of an infrastructure to fund their own police departments and support systems, many small native communities can’t operate those services without the assistance of the state or federal government. And, Price points out, the issue of providing rural law enforcement goes beyond funding. Cities and villages prefer to hire from within the community, but you want to hire from a group of a few hundred, the likelihood of finding someone who’s interested in serving is low.
“Even if ...all of a sudden we funneled out a billion dollars and said every community can hire two law enforcement individuals, there have to be people who want to serve in that capacity,” Price said.
That’s part of the reason Kake is excited about their new Village Public Safety Officer, Dean Cavanaugh. Kake has had VPSOs in the past, but the turnover rate was high and the hiring process, as Price pointed out, was long and sometimes impossible. Cavanaugh is their first VPSO to have grown up in Kake, and the village is hopeful he will stay for a while. He is a tall guy, young, with dark hair and dark rimmed glasses, and is often described in Kake as quiet; a good kid who mostly kept to himself growing up. He says he does plan on staying as long as he can— he took the job to help out his community, after all—but he doesn’t think he can make it a long- term career. The money ($26 an hour) isn’t great, but it’s fair, he says. He just can’t imagine being on call 24-7 for the rest of his life. It’s exhausting, particularly in Kake’s current situation, where the jail has degraded and is unusable, so Cavanaugh has to stay up all night in his makeshift office with anyone he arrests.
That dilapidated jail is one example of the second barrier tribes run into with the state. Not only do tribal governments want resources, like law enforcement, for their communities, they want the authority to decide what to do with them. Jason Wilson wants to be able to use VPSO program funds to fix the jail because he knows it’s critically important, but right now he can’t get approval from the state. “I love the way the program’s set up,” Wilson said, “but I think, fund each of us individually and allow us to do what’s best for our communities.”
Having a bigger role in shaping their communities is a goal that crops up again and again in conversations with Alaskans.
Judge O’Gara says while legalities like Indian Country are truly important, communities can be made a lot safer just through better collaboration between that state and tribal governments.
“Our fight isn’t necessarily really in resources, as much as if we cooperated, and worked together, we would be able to protect more people,” she explained. “Do I want the program to be replaced with something? No, I’d much rather see the VPSO more fully funded, better trained, and given the tools that they need in order to do the job that they’re asked to do, which is protect the village, protect the community, and be available for emergencies.”
When Jade Williams was killed in her own home, a few years after Howard was murdered, men from the town once again stood over her body, waiting for the troopers to come in. Standing broken in that familiar scene, the people of Kake must have wondered why nothing had changed.
Williams was hanging out and drinking with three 21-year-old men when she died of blunt force trauma to the head. Almost two years later, Kake is still waiting for the case to be solved.
Jason Wilson still wonders if an officer could have made the difference between life and death for her that night.
“What if we had somebody working, would that have happened,” he said. “Would somebody have said, maybe I shouldn’t do this.”
Nat Austin, the social services director in Kake, seems to agree. She says before Kake had VPSOs, the whole atmosphere would change when state troopers came into town. “People know when they’re here, they know when they’re gone, and it’s always a shit storm the day that they leave,” she said. She thinks that having law enforcement in town has changed a lot.
Anthony Gastelum lived next door to Williams, and said some of the young men walked into his house that night to tell he and his wife what had happened.
“I haven’t had a chance to grieve yet,” he said. “I’m going to continue to be assertive for where I live. And care. It’s ok to care.” He’s very grateful to be able to work with a team of people who all have the same purpose: to be there for their big extended family. “Whatever it takes.”
“It becomes very personal to everyone, because we’ve seen these children when they were babies, and grow up to be young teenagers, and then their lives are cut short.”
Heidi Vantrease agrees. In a community as small as Kake, everyone wears several different hats, and it’s easy to get to know–and care about–most everyone. “All these things, all these things, they don’t just affect just a single family. It affects the whole community.”