Good morning – and thank you all for being here. It is a pleasure to join with U.S. Attorney [Brendan] Johnson and President [John Yellow Bird] Steele in welcoming you to today’s meeting. And I want to thank everyone who participated in today’s opening ceremony for sharing their gifts and talents with us.
It is a privilege to be here in Pine Ridge, to stand with so many extraordinary leaders, and to visit some of your sacred places – grounds that have been marked by tragedy and loss, as well as healing and hope. Nearly half a century ago, following his tenure as Attorney General, Robert Kennedy traveled to Pine Ridge to learn about the conditions here, to shine a light on the struggles so many faced, and to signal the U.S. government’s commitment to ensuring peace, security, opportunity, and – above all – justice on tribal lands.
Today, this commitment lives on – and it has been renewed, and strengthened, by President Obama and this Administration. On behalf of my colleagues at the Justice Department and across the federal government, I am eager to hear from you – to learn more about the challenges you face; to better understand your concerns; and to discuss the goals, responsibilities, and dreams that we share – as well as the future that we must build.
Of course, when it comes to improving conditions and empowering individuals in Indian Country, many of you are already serving on the front lines. And I know that several of the leaders in this room have been working to improve lives and conditions in tribal communities for decades.
Day after day, you are bringing tribal justice issues to light, demanding that these issues be at the forefront of national-level discussions, and reinforcing essential government-to-government partnerships. You have raised awareness about the unique public safety challenges facing tribal communities – and the startling and wholly unacceptable rates of violence against American Indian women and girls. And you have reminded tribal, local, state, and federal leaders that we must never overlook the critical needs of victims – and the most vulnerable members of our society.
Thanks to you – and to the many likeminded leaders and advocates who share your passion and dedication – we now know that, in places like Pine Ridge, far too many lives have been scarred by violence and crime, as well as addiction and a lack of learning and job opportunities.
This is unacceptable. But I refuse to believe that the progress we seek is unattainable.
Of course, we’ve come together at a critical moment. A year ago this week, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law. This landmark piece of legislation has enhanced our ability to prosecute crimes in Indian Country, strengthened law enforcement capabilities across relevant jurisdictions, and brought a wide – and expanding – array of local stakeholders to the discussion table. It also has established new channels for communication and cooperation between tribal authorities and federal agencies.
The Justice Department is now working closely with our federal partners, particularly at the Departments of the Interior and Health and Human Services, to implement the law. We are also finalizing a Memorandum of Agreement with these Departments to coordinate the federal response to alcohol and substance abuse issues facing American Indians and Alaska Natives. And with the input and assistance of tribal governments and experts, we have developed a long-term plan to address juvenile and adult detention, corrections, reentry, and alternatives to incarceration.
The new law also has enabled the Justice Department to achieve a longstanding goal: the establishment of a permanent Office of Tribal Justice. Thanks to the leadership of its Director, Tracy Toulou, and the great work of his team, this Office is playing a critical role in bolstering the Department’s efforts to improve public safety in Indian Country.
Over the last year – even as the Justice Department has worked to implement the Tribal Law and Order Act – we have also sought to make good on President Obama’s call to consult with tribes on issues that affect them, and to coordinate our activities with our tribal partners. Today, the Department is working closely with tribal governments. We’ve also reestablished the Civil Rights Division’s Indian Working Group, and taken meaningful steps to improve how the federal government addresses tribal justice issues.
To that end, the Department of Justice has added dozens of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and victim-witness specialists in judicial districts that encompass tribal communities, to better address the serious public safety challenges facing tribes. I’m especially pleased that three of these AUSAs have been added right here in Brendan’s district – two of whom are enrolled members of tribes here in South Dakota. Last September, we appointed a highly skilled community prosecutor – Gregg Peterman, who will speak later this morning, and who I understand has become a regular presence here at Pine Ridge – to lead a new initiative aimed at strengthening ties between tribal community residents and federal law enforcement. And I’m especially proud that, across the country, it has become commonplace for U.S. Attorneys and AUSAs to join with tribal leaders in developing and implementing innovative public safety plans.
We can be – and we all should be – encouraged by this progress. But we have more to do. And, for me, no challenge is more urgent than protecting women and girls on tribal lands. That’s why the Justice Department recently proposed legislation that would close significant legal gaps and give Indian Country law enforcement, investigators, and prosecutors the tools they need to crack down on violence against women.
This new legislation would build upon the work we’ve done within the Justice Department – and across the Obama Administration – to implement the Tribal Law and Order Act. With such a step – and with our continued efforts – I am confident that meaningful change is within our reach.
I know this fight will not be easy, and that the changes we hope to see won’t happen overnight. Despite this, we must keep up our work – and our commitment to collaboration. To be truly effective, the Justice Department must have – and will continue to rely on – the engagement, insights, and expertise of tribal leaders and community members.
We need – and we will continue to welcome – your insights and ideas. So, let’s keep up the conversation we’re beginning today. And let us build on the progress that we have already made. We owe this to those who have come before us – and to those who, one day, will walk the paths that we now tread.
Once again, I want to thank you all for your participation today. I am grateful – and proud – to count you as partners.