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Why Alaska Natives pushed Sen. Lisa Murkowski to say no to Brett Kavanaugh

Hint: Sexual assault hits close to home.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh shakes hands with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) before their meeting on August 23, 2018
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said she would vote not to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court amid stiff opposition from Alaska Natives.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Even before the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh emerged, Alaska Native groups were pressuring Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a key swing vote, to reject his nomination. “She heard our concerns about Judge Kavanaugh’s record on the constitutional rights of Native peoples,” the Alaska Federation of Natives, a powerful lobbying bloc representing 186 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, wrote in a press release on Friday.

And after Christine Blasey Ford came forward with her accusation that Kavanaugh assaulted her at a party in the 1980s, some indigenous Alaskans redoubled their opposition.

Alaska’s indigenous tribes are an indispensable base for Murkowski, helping her win a write-in campaign for Senate in 2010 after she lost the Republican primary. And the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh raised new alarm among many members. Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the United States, more than double the national average. About half of assault victims are Natives.

Before Murkowski announced her intention to vote “no” on Kavanaugh, women from Alaska, including Alaska Natives, met with the senator this week to urge her to reject his nomination.

Many indigenous communities in Alaska opposed Kavanaugh from the outset of his nomination because of his past statements questioning federal rights and protections for Hawaiian Natives, raising alarm about potential rulings affecting Alaskan tribes. This was a concern Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono also raised during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.

The Alaska Federation of Natives formally came out against Kavanaugh’s nomination in September.

Native American sovereignty ties into sexual assault as well. According to the National Institute of Justice, most of the sexual violence perpetrated against Native women is by non-Native men. Due to the complicated web of federal, state, and tribal jurisdictions, these crimes have proved difficult to prosecute. Until recently, many tribal governments lacked the authority to level charges of sexual violence against non-Natives, even for crimes conducted in their territories.

“Being raised in the Alaskan Native community in my age group, I’m in my seventies, we were taught not to tell about sexual assault,” Adeline Raboth of Fairbanks, Alaska, said at a press conference, according to Rewire News. “Most of the time we would be blamed for being provocative in some way. So I can understand why someone would wait years to bring up a sexual assault.”

For Alaska Natives, that’s meant that many sexual assault crimes weren’t prosecuted at all, according to Amnesty International.

But Murkowski’s “no” won’t mean much now that Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced their intentions to vote in favor of Kavanaugh’s nomination, making his appointment to the Supreme Court nearly certain.

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