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Assistant Attorney General Tony West Speaks at the National Congress of American Indians Annual Conference
Albuquerque, N.M. ~ Monday, November 15, 2010

Vice-President Majel-Dixon, thank you for that kind introduction.   Let me extend my appreciation to President Keel and the other members of the executive committee, as well as all the tribal leaders and members of the Native American community who are here for welcoming me this afternoon.   And I want to extend greetings from Attorney General Eric Holder, with whom I’ve often discussed issues of importance to the Native American community, as well as a special greeting from the Associate Attorney General, Tom Perrelli, with whom many of you have worked personally and who is so committed to strengthening the ties of common interest and cooperation between sovereign Tribal Nations and the United States.  

 

I am particularly honored to be with you as the Nation celebrates Native American Heritage Month, a time when we remember the rich legacy that First Americans have bestowed upon us, and recall that we are a stronger America because of that legacy.   It’s a time to remember the important trust relationship between the United States and Native Americans and that although we continually strive to become A More Perfect Union that historic relationship has too often fallen far short of perfection; a time to remember the founders of this great organization, and their pledge to promote tribal sovereignty and self-determination in the face of the disruption and devastation caused by assimilation and termination policies pursued in the not-so-distant past.

 

And, just four days after Veterans Day, it’s a time to remember those American Indians who honorably served a government that did not always honor them:   the Code Talkers and Cold War Warriors and other Native American men and women who wore the uniform and whose courage helped secure the freedom we enjoy here, at this moment and in this place.  

 

So I am deeply honored by your invitation to be with you today and to share with you some of the work in which we have been engaged at the Department of Justice to improve life in Indian Country.

 

I know many of you are familiar with the Office of Tribal Justice and the Environmental and Natural Resources Division, which handle both affirmative and defensive litigation with respect to Native Americans.   But you may not be as familiar with the work we do in the Civil Division, which I lead and where we also handle several cases and initiatives involving Native Americans.

 

First, a quick overview:   The Civil Division is the Justice Department’s largest legal component.   With about 1,000 lawyers and over 1,400 employees, the Civil Division deals with just about every type of civil legal issue facing our country today, in thousands of cases that collectively involve the most significant issues of national security, Presidential authority, the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress, the enforcement of our federal consumer protection laws and the recovery billions of taxpayer dollars lost to fraud such as health care fraud, mortgage fraud and other types of financial fraud.  

 

And from the time I was sworn-in as Assistant Attorney General 19 months ago, I have been engaged in issues of consequence to Indian Country.   Whether it’s ensuring greater outreach to Navajo claimants in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act   program that is administered by the Civil Division, or working to resolve the long-running Cobell litigation, or the recent Keepseagle settlement that I was proud to announce with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack last month, I am constantly reminded of this administration’s unwavering commitment to moving the ball forward towards justice as it concerns Native Americans.   It is a responsibility all of us in this administration take seriously.

 

So let me talk a little bit about two matters we’ve focused on in the Civil Division:   the Keepseagle settlement and our work to improve the administration of Native American claims under RECA, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

 

As you know, the Keepseagle case was filed nearly a decade ago when a group of Native American farmers and ranchers alleged discrimination by the USDA in its farm lending practices and its processing of civil rights complaints.   Now that case was often the subject of contentious litigation between the U.S. government and the Native American plaintiffs, so there was a great deal of hope when Secretary Vilsack and Attorney General Holder expressed their great desire to see us turn the page on this and the other farmer discrimination cases that have had long histories at USDA and the Justice Department.  

 

Now, resolving the Keepseagle matter has been a high priority for me, and although this settlement will not be final until it is approved by the court following a fairness hearing this spring, I’d like to share with you some of the key terms of the settlement agreement because they’re so important.

 

First, the agreement provides, in the words of President Keel, “long awaited justice for American Indian farmers and ranchers who have only sought an equal opportunity to work hard and succeed, [as well as] tangible steps . . . to right a wrong [and] reinforce the trust relationship between the United States and American Indian tribal nations.”  

 

I was in the courtroom on the afternoon we announced the settlement.   And I will tell you there were tears on many faces that day—tears of joy, tears of relief that this long, painful chapter was finally coming to a close.   For the Department of Agriculture and the Justice Department, this agreement reflects a strong and abiding interest in moving past a difficult history so that the federal government is better able to work constructively with the millions of Native Americans it serves.

 

Second, the agreement is important because it will provide substantial tangible benefits to many Native American farmers and ranchers, including avenues to help them remain on their land, farming and ranching.   Toward that end, the settlement agreement includes both monetary and nonmonetary relief.  

 

With respect to monetary relief, a fund totaling $680 million will be used to pay eligible class members to compensate them for their claims of discrimination.   Importantly, this fund does not require a specific congressional appropriation, but will be payable from an appropriated fund called the Judgment Fund, which we in the Civil Division use routinely to resolve litigation.  

 

Claims will be paid through a claims process.   That process will be non-judicial and non-adversarial, meaning there won’t be a judge or opposing lawyers involved.   Instead, there will be an independent, claims adjudicator who will review the claims applications of eligible class members and make determinations based on the information individuals submit.

 

There will be two tracks of potential relief available:   Class members who can provide substantial evidence of discrimination will receive a settlement of up to $50,000 per successful claimant.   Class members who have stronger evidence of discrimination may submit that evidence and seek up to $250,000.    Based on past experience in other similar cases, we expect most individuals will fall within the first track—the up to $50,000 track.

 

In addition to the monetary award, successful claimants will receive other benefits such as:

 

  • Debt forgiveness for who have outstanding USDA farm loan program debt that was allegedly impacted by discrimination;
  • Additional payments to offset potential tax liability on settlement awards; and
  • And a temporary moratorium on foreclosures of most claimants' farms, as well as a moratorium on accelerations and administrative offsets of class members’ farm loan accounts.

 

The USDA also plans to take steps that will benefit all Native American farmers and ranchers, and not just those who are class members in this suit.   These steps include:

 

  • The creation of a new Federal Advisory Council for Native American Farmers and Ranchers that will encompass Native American representatives as well as senior USDA officials;
  • The creation of a new USDA Ombudsperson position that will address issues relating to Native American farmers and ranchers, as well as farmers or ranchers from other socially disadvantaged groups, and will be empowered to refer issues to the USDA Office of the Inspector General or to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights for further investigation; and
  • The provision of enhanced technical assistance services concerning financial, business and marketing planning skills.  

 

It’s an important agreement and while it does not, of course, solve all of the challenges faced by Native American farmers and ranchers, it’s an important step forward.  

 

Now, I’ve only given you an outline of the agreement; more information will become available over the next few months.   Answers to questions such as: how do I get a claim form; how do I obtain help filling a claim form out; when will the claims process start; how can I seek debt relief—all of these questions and more will be addressed in the coming months as the lawyers work to get the settlement approved by the court and begin the process of notifying people throughout Indian Country about the settlement and how to find out whether they’re eligible to participate.

 

Now the second area where we’ve made important progress in the Civil Division and one I’m most proud is with RECA, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act program.   Through this program, we have paid out over $1.5 billion in compensation on over 23,000 claims of persons affected by uranium mining and nuclear weapons tests in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, primarily in the Four Corners Region.   Many of the claimants are Navajo, and over $175 million has been paid on the two thousand claims filed by Navajo Cold War Patriots.

 

Last year, after I learned that large numbers of Navajo claimants were not filing claims or were filing claims that did not succeed the first time they were submitted, I traveled to the Navajo Nation where I met with Cold War Patriots and their families, as well as with the dedicated public servants who help administer the RECA program.   I wanted to get a better understanding of why first-time Navajo claimants were being rejected at a higher rate than non-Navajo claimants, especially because those Navajo claimants who persisted and resubmitted their claims more often than not were successful the second time around.

 

What I learned during those meetings led me to the conclusion that we had to do a better job of outreach, of informing people about the RECA program and helping meritorious participants to prepare their claims.   So, after several meetings and planning sessions, last March I returned to the Navajo Nation to launch the RECA Outreach Internship Program, an initiative specifically designed to improve outreach to Native American claimants and provide more individual assistance in the completion of RECA claim forms.  

 

A key part of this initiative is that it is a student internship:   We recruited nearly 30 students in the Four Corners region, most with cultural or linguistic ties to the Navajo and Hopi communities, paid them a salary and trained them to conduct claims outreach and provide individual assistance.

 

But in addition to a paid internship, we wanted to expose these students to the value of public service.   So before they embarked on their work, we flew them all to Washington DC for weeklong training session.   Not only did they learn how to do effective outreach and provide the important individual assistance, they also met with senior administration officials, learned about law and public service, and ways they could make a difference to their communities and the Nation as a whole.  

 

And I’m pleased to report that the internship program is already exceeding our expectations.   These young people are making a real difference and we are already seeing promising results in the claims being filed by Native American RECA claimants.

 

Now I’ve shared with you only two of the many ways in which the Justice Department is trying to make a difference in the lives of First Americans.   There are, of course, many more:   from our support of the Tribal Law and Order Act, signed into law by President Obama last July, which increases accountability for federal agencies responsible for public safety in Indian Country and gives greater local control to tribal law enforcement agencies; to the nearly $127 million in grants recently awarded by the Justice Department to support the public safety initiatives of federally recognized Indian tribes.

 

And while our work to fulfill the United States’ trust responsibility to Native Americans is far from over, I believe the efforts I’ve discussed—and the critical support the NCAI has given to these efforts—I believe we are moving closer to a trust responsibility that truly fulfills its promise; closer to a government-to-government relationship with sovereign Tribal Nations that we can be proud of; closer to that aspiration, first articulated over 200 years ago, of becoming a More Perfect Union.

 

Thank you very much.

 

 

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