Tribal Liaisons: Providing a Vital Link to Tribal Communities
An important component of efforts of the United States Attorneys’ offices in Indian Country is the Tribal Liaison program, established by the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) in 1995. In 2010, the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 (TLOA) codified EOUSA’s Tribal Liaison program, directing that “[t]he United States Attorney for each district that includes Indian Country shall appoint not less that 1 assistant United States Attorney to serve as a Tribal Liaison for the district.”
The legal and cultural issues in Indian Country are complex and long-standing. Effective Tribal Liaisons play a key role in helping to facilitate communication among the United States Attorneys Offices, federal law enforcement partners, tribal leaders, tribal law enforcement officers, and members of the tribal communities.
From the inception of the Tribal Liaison program in 1995, the role of a Tribal Liaison has been multi-faceted. Assistant United States Attorneys designated as Tribal Liaisons provide a vital link to tribal communities and often serve as the first line of communication. Now, pursuant to Section 213 (b) of TLOA, the statutory duties of a Tribal Liaison include the following:
- Coordinating the prosecution of federal crimes that occur in Indian Country.
- Developing multi-disciplinary teams to combat child abuse and domestic and sexual violence offenses against Indians.
- Consulting and coordinating with tribal justice officials and victims’ advocates to address any backlog in the prosecution of major crimes in Indian Country in the district.
- Developing working relationships and maintaining communication with tribal leaders, tribal community, and victims’ advocates, and tribal justice officials to gather information from, and share appropriate information with, tribal justice officials.
- Coordinating with tribal prosecutors in cases in which a tribal government has concurrent jurisdiction over an alleged crime, in advance of the expiration of any applicable statute of limitation.
- Providing technical assistance and training regarding evidence gathering techniques and strategies to address victim and witness protection to tribal justice officials and other individuals and entities that are instrumental to responding to Indian Country crimes.
- Conducting training sessions and seminars to certify special law enforcement commissions to tribal justice officials and other individuals and entities responsible for responding to Indian Country crimes.
- Coordinating with the Office of Tribal Justice, as necessary.
- Conducting such other activities to address and prevent violent crime in Indian Country as the applicable United States Attorney determines to be appropriate.
The Assistant United States Attorneys who serve as Tribal Liaisons are among the most skilled, dedicated and accomplished attorneys in our nation. The work is challenging, but the rewards are great. Typically, Tribal Liaisons develop personal relationships with individuals who serve in various roles in tribal government and tribal courts, as well as with tribal prosecutors and police officers and those working for social service agencies. These relationships do much to facilitate information sharing and assist in coordinating criminal prosecutions, whether federal, state or tribal.
Assistant United States Attorney Danna Jackson, who has served as a Tribal Liaison in the District of Montana since September 2010, observes: “We are delighted when we are able to have candid conversations with our tribal partners, when we can engage in a free flow of information and ideas, and make reservation communities safer places.” Since joining the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana in September, Ms. Jackson has been organizing and participating in conferences and meetings, and providing training for statewide events and national initiatives involving domestic violence, sexual abuse, and Indian Country environmental issues. She has also facilitated relationships between the USAO and public safety partners, including tribal judges and members of the newly formed tribal prosecutor’s organization. Ms. Jackson’s travel to Indian Country has been extensive: she has accompanied the United States Attorney in his government-to-government outreach to tribal governments, tribal courts, tribal law enforcement offices, and tribal colleges. In a wintry trip to Rocky Boy, Ms. Jackson accompanied Defending Childhood Initiative leaders from Washington, D.C. to a tribal council meeting.
Assistant United States Attorney Don Gast, who has served as a Tribal Liaison for the Western District of North Carolina for more than ten years. described the most rewarding part of the job: “The most rewarding aspect for me is helping victims who do not expect to find a champion who works for the federal government.” Mr. Gast remembers one particularly challenging domestic violence case in which a Native American woman had been pistol-whipped by her boyfriend. The victim, who did not trust the federal government, was very reluctant to help the prosecution and, at trial, actually recanted and testified on behalf of the defendant. Nonetheless, the jury convicted the boyfriend on firearms charges. Following the trial, the woman contacted Mr. Gast and apologized for not telling the truth: “She told me she knew I was looking out for her, and she wished she had been looking out for herself.”