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Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West Speaks at the20th Annual Four Corners Indian Country Conference


Pojoaque, NM
United States

Thanks, Ken, for that kind introduction. It’s wonderful to be back in New Mexico, and especially at this beautiful facility on the Pojoaque Pueblo. It's been a privilege to meet Governor Rivera, and to spend time with my colleagues, the U.S. Attorney for Colorado, John Walsh, and the U.S. Attorney for Utah, David Barlow, who are co-sponsors of this conference. I also want to recognize and thank conference cosponsors, Bob Cantrall from my Department’s Office for Victims of Crime, and Laura Naranjo from the BIA’s Office of Justice Services.

I’m particularly honored to participate in this Four Corners Indian Country Conference, marking the 20th anniversary of this important gathering. For two decades, this conference has played a critical role in fostering collaboration among Federal and tribal leaders, social-service providers, law-enforcement officers, judges, and prosecutors. Every year, you have come together to develop innovative strategies for improving public safety in the tribal communities of the Four Corners Region. And every year, your commitment persists, in good times and in times of great difficulty.

For your dedication to that extraordinarily important mission, I salute you. And I bring the thanks of the entire leadership of the U.S. Department of Justice, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole.

Today, we come together in an hour of hope, challenge, and opportunity.


We have reason to hope because over the last three and a half years, President Obama and Attorney General Holder have been unmistakable and unwavering in making Indian country issues in general -- and tribal sovereignty in particular -- a high, Administration priority, consistent with our desire to see all tribes thrive as prosperous, vibrant, and safe communities.


For example, when I was the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division, we settled the Keepseagle litigation, a nationwide class action that Native American farmers and ranchers had brought against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for racial discrimination stretching back three decades, finally turning the page on a painful chapter in our Nation’s relationship with tribal nations.


More recently, we settled long-standing litigation about the mismanagement of funds and resources held in trust for individual Indians -- the Cobell case -- as well as for Indian tribes, in several dozen other cases. All told, these settlements of trust cases have resulted in over $4 billion flowing back to 50 tribes and 400,000 individual Native Americans.


There's reason for hope because we’ve also taken steps to ensure that our commitment to Indian country is institutionalized. In 2010, we established the Office of Tribal Justice, or OTJ, as a permanent, separate component within the Department of Justice. Tracy Toulou has headed OTJ with distinction for several years and is here with us today.


We’ve thoroughly revamped and streamlined the process for tribes to apply for Justice Department grants, as we’ve awarded nearly a quarter billion dollars to more than 150 tribal communities in the last two years alone. These grants cover everything from juvenile justice to community policing to methamphetamine enforcement.

And we’ve established the Tribal Nations Leadership Council, composed of tribal leaders selected by the tribes themselves and charged with advising the Attorney General on issues critical to tribal governments.

We also have reason to hope because under Attorney General Holder’s leadership, the Justice Department’s commitment to improving public safety has never been greater. Over the last three years, we’ve deployed 28 new Assistant U.S. Attorneys dedicated to prosecuting crime in Indian country, and nine new FBI positions, including six agents to work on Indian country investigations. And the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance has added 12 Indian country Victim Specialist positions.

In addition, under the leadership of Leslie Hagen, who is also here with us today, we’ve launched a National Indian Country Training Initiative, which has already trained more than two thousand Federal, State, local, and tribal prosecutors and criminal-justice personnel. Just last week at the National Advocacy Center, Leslie launched the first in a series of trainings on sexual-assault investigation and prosecution, with more than 75 tribal and federal law enforcement officers, victim specialists, and prosecutors attending.

So we have reason to hope because progress is afoot in the Justice Department -- progress Native American communities around this country are, I’m told, feeling in important, positive ways.

But as I said a few moments ago, this is also a moment of challenge and opportunity. We know we have much work left to do in Indian country. And much of that work has to do with an issue that is very important to the Justice Department, to the Attorney General, and to me: curbing the alarmingly high rate of violence against Native women.

Rates of domestic violence against Native women in Indian country are now among the highest in the entire United States. And although we know there is a need for more and better data, what we do know is startling to even the most seasoned prosecutors of sexual violence.

We know that nearly half of all Native American women -- 46% -- have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, according to a recent nationwide survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We know that one in three Indian women will, at some point in their lives, experience the violence of rape.

We know that before the sun sets on this day, three more women will lose their lives to a domestic-violence homicide somewhere in the United States -- and that on some reservations, Native American women are murdered at a rate more than ten times the national average, according to an analysis of death certificates.

And we know something else: We know that we can stop this cycle of violence. We know from our domestic-violence work across the United States, in Indian country and elsewhere, that early intervention that interrupts or deters a pattern of escalating domestic violence is the key to avoiding more serious and deadly violence in the future, and the key to saving more women’s lives.

But what’s different in Indian country is a unique jurisdictional gap that undermines effective law enforcement when it comes to fighting violence against women. Many of you know what I’m talking about; you confront the so-called “jurisdictional maze” in your jobs every day. In Indian country, whether a crime falls in Federal or State or tribal jurisdiction depends on the location of the crime, the race of the victim, the race of the perpetrator, and the nature of the crime.

So as a general matter, unless Congress says otherwise, only the Federal Government has jurisdiction over crimes that non-Indians commit against Indians in Indian country. Today, an Indian tribe cannot prosecute a non-Indian for domestic violence, even if he lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member. That’s the law today, and that’s not right.

And this has real-world consequences. According to the last census, non-Indians constitute more than 76% of the overall population on reservation and other Indian lands. Roughly half of all married Indian women have non-Indian husbands.

So the non-Indian man who beats his partner knowing he can’t be prosecuted by the local, tribal criminal justice system? He keeps battering that woman. The Indian woman who suffers through violent episodes knowing that her call to the local, tribal police is unlikely to lead to prosecution? She stops calling the police for help. And the only criminal-justice system that has authority to act? Federal law-enforcement, whose resources may be many hours and hundreds of miles away.

It was against this backdrop that the Justice Department set out to look for solutions. We spoke with our Federal prosecutors, with FBI agents, with our Office on Violence Against Women, our Office of Tribal Justice, our Criminal Division, and all the other relevant components of the Justice Department. We spoke with our colleagues at the BIA and the Indian Health Service. And most importantly, we engaged in extensive consultations with tribal leaders, on a government-to-government basis, over a period of months.

The message we heard was clear: That a tribe’s ability to protect an Indian woman from violence should not depend on the race of the assailant; that this was an issue which cut to the very core of tribal sovereignty, as one of the most basic, fundamental functions of any government is to protect its people; and that this issue wasn’t about abstract statistics -- it was about mothers and sisters, wives and daughters, partners and friends. It was about protecting women, plain and simple.

So last summer, in July 2011, the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Holder, took on this challenge and tried to create an opportunity offered by Congress’s efforts this year to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA. By formally and publicly recommending to Congress new Federal legislation to fill gaps in our criminal-justice system, as well as measures to better protect women in tribal communities from violent crime, the Justice Department pressed forward amendments to VAWA that consisted of three components – tribal criminal jurisdiction, tribal civil jurisdiction, and Federal criminal offenses.

As for tribal criminal jurisdiction, we recommended new Federal legislation recognizing tribes’ criminal jurisdiction over both Indians and non-Indians who assault Indian spouses, intimate partners, or dating partners, or who violate protection orders, in Indian country.

Now, this tribal criminal jurisdiction had some restrictions. It would apply only in Indian country, not to off-reservation crimes; would not deal with all types of crimes but instead would focus on domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protection orders; and would be limited to cases where the victim is Indian and the defendant has some ties to the tribal community, such as living or working on the reservation or being married to a tribal member.

And importantly, we proposed robust protections for the rights of individual defendants. A non-Indian prosecuted under this new law would have effectively the same rights in tribal court that he would have in State court if he were being prosecuted for a similar crime. Those rights include due-process rights and the right of an indigent defendant to free appointed counsel meeting Federal constitutional standards. And we proposed a new grant program to help some tribes pay for indigent defense counsel, who could then represent indigent non-Indians and Indians alike.

The second feature of our legislative proposal dealt with tribal civil jurisdiction. Simply put, it would clarify that tribal courts have full civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection orders against both Indians and non-Indians.

And the third feature of our legislative package would amend the Federal assault statute. Under the current law, when an Indian woman suffers an assault, depending on the circumstances, Federal prosecutors often cannot prosecute the case at all, or cannot seek a sentence beyond six months against a non-Indian perpetrator. Our proposal would fix that gap, and bring Federal law closer into line with modern State criminal codes on domestic violence, adding new felony domestic-violence offenses with five- and ten-year maximum sentences, which would apply to both Indian and non-Indian defendants.

The overarching theme of this three-part legislative package is to focus less on the racial identification of the victim or the defendant, and more on the seriousness and dangerousness of the violence.

So far, our proposal has been well received in Congress. After several months of hearings and markups and debate, on April 26 the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2012, which included our tribal proposals almost verbatim. In the floor debate, Senator Udall of New Mexico took a leading role in advocating for those proposals, and the VAWA reauthorization bill passed with bipartisan support, 68 to 31. Notably, every single woman in the U.S. Senate -- Democrat and Republican -- voted for the bill.

About a month later, the House of Representatives, voting largely on party lines, passed a very different version of the bill. While the House version included our proposed amendments to creating new domestic-violence felonies, it did not include our proposals on tribal jurisdiction. However, key Representatives from both parties have now expressed support for those tribal-jurisdiction provisions contained in the Senate version of the bill.

So we’ll continue to push and we remain hopeful that all of these provisions -- protecting Native women and supporting tribal sovereignty -- will soon become law. And we at the Justice Department will continue to do everything we can to decrease the numbers of Native American women who fall victim to violence; to strengthen the tribes’ capacity to respond to violent crimes; and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable.

Let me close by saying that this is my second extended trip to Indian country in the five months since I became the Acting Associate Attorney General; my fourth since joining the Department of Justice as a member of President Obama’s administration in 2009. My first trip took me to the Navajo Nation, where I worked on improving outreach to Cold War Warriors and their families so they could more easily access funds to which they were untitled under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

I’ve since visited the Crow and Northern Cheyenne nations, and after I leave you, I will travel nearly 300 miles to meet with leaders and members of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, as well as leaders and members of Acoma Pueblo and the Pueblo of Laguna.

And for me, these visits to Indian country are a great privilege. They are a great privilege for me because they remind me of the rich legacy that First Americans have bestowed upon this country, and that we are a stronger America because of that legacy.

They remind me of the important trust relationship between the United States and tribal nations, and that the struggle for tribal sovereignty and self-determination has too often been waged in the face of disruption and devastation caused by assimilation and termination policies pursued in the not-so-distant past.

They remind me of the Code Talkers, the Cold War Warriors, and the other Native American men and women who proudly wore the uniform and whose continued service today helps secure the freedoms we enjoy here, at this moment and in this place; and that, as important as is our shared history, so too is our common destiny: a future that is left in our hands to shape.

Let us seize this opportunity to shape that future together.

Thank you very much.

Indian Country Law and Justice
Updated May 3, 2017