Justice News

Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez Speaks at the National Congress of American Indians’ 69th Annual Convention
Sacramento, CA
United States
Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Good morning. It is an honor to join you today at the NCAI convention. I am delighted to be here to speak about the Justice Department’s commitment to protecting the rights of American Indians and Native Alaskans, and to continue to listen and learn from all of you.

I bring you greetings on behalf of President Obama and Attorney General Holder. The attorney general has made the expansion of partnership and consultation with tribal leaders a top priority. Early in this administration, the attorney general launched a department-wide initiative to improve tribal justice and public safety. He knew that to be effective in this area, we would need to begin immediately, and we would need sustained focus. In the fall of 2009, he convened, for the first time in the department’s history, a listening session at which all three of the department’s top officials joined in a shared dialogue with the leaders of tribal nations. Because tribal communities touch nearly every aspect of the department, nearly 100 Department of Justice officials representing more than 20 different components traveled to St. Paul, Minn., for the session. We listened and engaged in discussions about concrete proposals that we could take back to Washington to implement, and have continued to convene with tribal leaders and communities across the country.

We are here today to continue this dialogue. And the department has done a number of things to keep this conversation going. In 2010, the attorney general announced the establishment of the Office of Tribal Justice as a separate component within the organizational structure of the Department of Justice. The office has played, and will continue to play, a key role in the department’s ongoing initiative to improve public safety in Indian country, and to serve as a cultural and legal resource within the department on matters of Indian law.

Recognizing the importance of open dialogue and communication, the attorney general has also established the Justice Department’s Tribal Nations Leadership Council, a group of tribal leaders from around the country who will advise him on issues critical to tribal communities. This is the first council composed of tribal leaders selected by the tribes themselves to advise Justice Department leadership on an ongoing basis.

And in each U.S. Attorney’s Office whose district includes Indian Country, the department has designated at least one attorney to be the dedicated liaison with tribal leaders. The attorney general directed each one of these U.S. Attorneys to sit down with tribal leaders and tribal law enforcement officials, and to work together to develop strategies and specific operational plans to reduce violent crime. The department has launched a national training program as well, to give federal, state and tribal criminal justice personnel the skills and tools needed to address the particular challenges relevant to Indian country prosecutions.

This is only a small fraction of the work the department is doing to expand partnerships, dialogue, and consultation with tribal leaders. The Civil Rights Division is an important part of that effort. In addition, we have established an American Indian Working Group, whose mission is to assist the division in meeting its law enforcement duties and responsibilities to the Native American people. Representatives from every section of the division participate in the working group, which elevates enforcement, outreach, and educational opportunities concerning Native American issues within the division, within the Department of Justice, and throughout the country. More important, it is there to hear from you, and you can reach the working group at its email address:indianrights.workinggroup@usdoj.gov.

It continues to be a tremendous honor to serve as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. We are in the opportunity business. Through the enforcement of civil rights laws in a variety of areas, we expand access to opportunity in communities across the country. Opportunity gaps persist for Native American tribes and individuals, whether they live in or near Indian Country, or in cities around the country. I see here today an incredible dedication to closing those gaps, and I am hearing about the tremendous difference you are making. I applaud your efforts. I am here to ask you to continue to tell us about your work and the challenges you are facing. We don’t know what we don’t know. This is why we rely on community stakeholders to serve as our eyes and ears. We want to hear your ideas for how to target our resources, and to partner with you to combat discrimination against you and your communities. For far too long, Native Americans have experienced discrimination and injustice, and the federal government can and must stop such discrimination; we share many of the same goals.

It has been extremely educational and productive to meet with and learn from tribal leaders during the past three years. I have met with tribal leaders in New Mexico and South Dakota and elsewhere. We have discussed issues in Indian Country, and met with Native American leaders in Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Detroit.

As head of the Civil Rights Division, I am confronted daily with examples of violence that demonstrate why these efforts are needed. Without question we are seeing real challenges to the civil rights of American Indians, including vicious assaults born of hatred, and threats used to drive Native Americans out of their homes. We have also seen other crimes that have a devastating impact and cut deeply through tribal communities. Rates of violent crime are two times, four times, even ten times what they are in other communities across the country. American Indians are two and half times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races, and one in three Indian women reports having been raped during her life time. This is profoundly disturbing, and it is completely unacceptable.

At the Justice Department, we have made enforcing the rights of American Indians a priority. We are working tirelessly both to reduce crime, and to protect personal liberties and safety. While we still have far to travel, we are making great progress. We have taken concrete steps to strengthen government-to-government relationships with Native Americans in recent years. We understand that our responsibility to citizens in Indian country is unique, and we take it seriously. And we continue to use our authority to expand access to opportunity and justice, guided first and foremost by our respect for tribal sovereignty and in close cooperation with our community and tribal government partners.

We do this hand-in-hand with many of the people here today, through work that spans the Justice Department. We have also brought this message to Capitol Hill. The attorney general and the Justice Department worked in concert with members of the House and Senate to pass the Tribal Law and Order Act, which President Obama signed into law in July 2010. The act helps to address crime in tribal communities and places a strong emphasis on decreasing violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women. It encourages the hiring of more law enforcement officers for Indian lands and provides additional tools to address critical public safety needs. It also authorizes new guidelines for handling sexual assault and domestic violence crimes, from training for law enforcement and court officers, to boosting conviction rates through better evidence collection, to providing better and more comprehensive services to victims.

At the Justice Department, we continue to work with our federal partners to implement this important law. As one example, last summer, the attorney general, Secretary Salazar and Secretary Sebelius signed a memorandum of agreement to coordinate in developing sustained responses to alcohol and substance abuse issues affecting tribal nations.

In the Civil Rights Division, play a significant role in the department’s efforts to reduce crime and advance public safety in Native American communities, by enforcing laws that protect against hate crimes and discriminatory or abusive policing. We have greatly expanded our docket of cases on issues affecting Native Americans. And all too frequently, we find that Native Americans are targets.

In New Mexico, we successfully prosecuted a group of men who assaulted a 22-year-old Navajo man with a developmental disability, defacing his body with white supremacist and anti-Native American symbols, and branding him with a swastika using a wire hanger they heated on a stove. The case we brought against these men was the Division’s very first prosecution under the new Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 2009.

A core part of safe communities is an effective, accountable police department that reduces crime, ensures respect for the Constitution and earns the trust of the public it is charged with protecting. This summer, we indicted several police officers in Albuquerque and a former Sheriff’s deputy in San Juan County, N.M., for assaulting Native American victims. All suspects have a right to be free from the unreasonable use of force by police officers under the law.

We also reached a comprehensive agreement with the city of Seattle regarding the Seattle Police Department’s use of excessive force and concerns about discriminatory policing. We initiated an investigation of the Seattle Police Department, in part because of the death of a Native American woodcarver who was shot by a Seattle police officer after crossing a street while holding his carving knife and a block of wood. Though the woodcarver’s case was especially tragic, sadly it was not entirely unique; in more than half of the excessive force cases we reviewed during our investigation we found that the victims were people of color. But we were able to collaborate with a broad range of community groups, including several advocacy and service providers from the Native American community, as well as the city and the police department to reach an agreement that will serve as a comprehensive blueprint for reform. Part of the agreement requires Seattle to create a novel Community Police Commission, a civilian oversight board that will include representatives of the Native American community who will be able to provide input on the Seattle Police Department’s training requirements and policies going forward.

The division enforces laws that protect the first freedom as well: the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choosing, free from discrimination or persecution, and to live according to their beliefs.

One such law the Civil Rights Division enforces is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. Among other things, RLUIPA protects the residents of state or locally-owned institutions, including correctional facilities, from substantial burdens on their religious exercise. The division has an active docket of these cases. Many come to us directly in letters written by detainees or inmates in jails and prisons, and a number involve the rights of Native Americans. We filed a statement of interest in a recent case urging the court to permit Native American inmates to use tobacco in religious ceremonies, without second-guessing whether tobacco is traditional to Native American religious practices, because RLUIPA guarantees a right to “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” In September, a District Court agreed with our position and ruled that a South Dakota prison must allow these inmates to use tobacco in religious ceremonies.

The department also formalized a policy just last week addressing the ability of members of federally recognized Indian tribes to possess or use eagle feathers, an issue I know is of great cultural and religious significance to many tribes and their members. The policy clarifies and expands on longstanding Department practice. It is consistent with the Department of Interior’s 35-year old Morton Policy of not prosecuting tribal members for possessing or using eagle feathers or other protecting bird parts, while continuing to prosecute tribal members and non-members alike for killing protected birds or buying or selling their feathers. In that way, the policy balances accommodations for the cultural and religious needs of tribes that regard the eagle or other birds as sacred with the need to protect at-risk populations of these birds.

The department issued this policy in response to concerns we were hearing from tribal communities. We heard from tribal members who were not certain how they would be affected by federal enforcement efforts, and told us that this uncertainty was inhibiting their tribal religious or cultural practices. And the attorney general signed the policy after extensive consultation with tribal leaders and tribal groups, and careful consideration of the sensitive and important issues involved. 

Expanding opportunity is not simply an issue of religious freedom and safe communities. It is also essential in the workplace, because regrettably, we see opportunity gaps there as well – as we do in the lending context, in our courtrooms and classrooms, and in access to the right to vote.

The division enforces laws that allow for expanded opportunity in all of these areas. On the employment front, we take on cases like the one involving the city of Gallup, N.M. The case involved allegations that the city systematically refused to hire qualified Native American applicants for positions throughout the city, including the police, fire, solid waste and utility departments. We will continue to work to ensure that workers are judged not by their race or the color of their skin, but by the content of their character and their qualifications for the job.

We know that minority communities were hit particularly hard in the foreclosure crisis, and in 2010, we created a Fair Lending unit to address any past and future credit discrimination. Access to credit is the foundation of wealth in our nation, and in order to have real equal opportunity, individuals must have equal access to credit. Particularly in communities where unemployment rates were already high pre-recession, as with many Native communities, it is critical that we remain vigilant in enforcing fair housing and fair lending laws to ensure they do not suffer even further.

Several years ago, the Civil Rights Division settled a lending case that alleged that a lender that operated in parts of the West and Southwest had refused to make loans to people who lived on Indian reservations. Age-old tactics like this unfortunately remain all too common, and we remain committed to aggressive enforcement – we currently have several investigations into potential lending discrimination against Native Americans based on the fact that they live in Indian country. And our Fair Lending Unit has handled more cases than ever in the past two years overall, including cases that have led to landmark agreements with lenders like Wells Fargo and Countrywide. These lenders have agreed to put in place strong fair lending policies to ensure that all borrowers are judged by their creditworthiness, not their race or national origin.

We protect the rights of Native Americans with disabilities. One way we do this is through our Project Civic Access initiative, which we began in 1999 to improve access to state and local government programs and services under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We have entered into more than 200 agreements under Project Civic Access. Twenty-five have been in cities and counties with significant Native American and Alaskan Native populations. As a result of these agreements, access to state and local government programs, services and facilities has been improved for over four million individuals with disabilities nationwide.

We continue to investigate and challenge public schools’ discrimination against Native American students and parents, including policies that discriminate on the basis of English language proficiency.

And using our authority under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we have conducted investigations and negotiated settlement agreements to ensure state courts are fully accessible to everyone, regardless of their language ability – including Native Americans. State courts deal with disputes that directly touch peoples’ lives, matters involving child custody, protection from domestic violence, housing eviction, unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, and so many others. Our nation’s civil rights laws, including Title VI, require that state courts be fully accessible, so that all individuals can have access to this important resource. We also enforce Title VI in other contexts, to protect against discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in other programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. Recently we worked with the Department of Health and Human Services concerning allegations of discrimination against Native American children and families in the foster care placement process.

Finally, the division works to enforce laws that are intended to ensure access to the paramount expression of our democracy – the right of every citizen to have an equal right to vote.

The Voting Section enforces four main federal statutes that protect the rights of all Americans to vote and to have equal access to the ballot. One of these statutes, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, applies nation-wide and to all elections, and includes protections not only from discrimination based on race or membership in a minority group, but also for language minorities, so that eligible citizens are not precluded from full and equal participation in the electoral process based on their English language ability.

T he Voting Section has been active in Indian Country. Over the years, we have brought cases to protect voting rights in tribal communities in Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Utah.

In 2009, upon a recommendation by the voting section, the attorney general certified that the appointment of federal observers in the Bethel Census Area, in Alaska, was necessary to enforce the guarantees of the 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  Thereafter, the Voting Section monitored elections in the city of Bethel, sending federal observers to Bethel in October 2009 and during the November 2010 general election to determine whether the city was providing election information in the Yu’pik language. The state of Alaska subsequently sued the attorney general, alleging in August of this year that the Section 5 preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional as applied to Alaska. We intend to vigorously defend that lawsuit, to ensure that American Indians and Alaska Natives and other minority groups in Alaska continue to have full and non-discriminatory access to the ballot.

And in 2010, we reached an agreement with Shannon County, S.D., to ensure the voting rights of Lakota-speaking American Indian voters. The agreement with Shannon County ensures that limited-English proficient voters can access the ballot, by enforcing provisions of the Voting Rights Act that require the county to provide election materials and information in Lakota. The agreement provides for a comprehensive Lakota language assistance program, including trained bilingual election officials to be available at all polling places in the county. Further, the agreement provides that each polling location will have in place an operational voting system that provides accessibility for minority language voters through a Lakota audio ballot as well as accessibility to voters with disabilities. This agreement ensures that Lakota elders, should they desire, will have ballots and other election materials translated into their native language so that they have the opportunity to vote a ballot they understand. 

These recent voting matters would not have been possible without the input from tribal leaders, many of whom we first met at past NCAI conventions and gatherings.

I am very proud of the wide ranging work that the Civil Rights Division has done and continues to enforce civil rights laws that ensure access to opportunity and justice. Yet as I said at the start, we cannot do this work alone. We need to hear from you about the challenges you are facing, and we want to partner with you to address those challenges together.

Another partner to this effort is the department’s Community Relations Service, the department’s “peacemaker” for community conflicts and tensions arising from differences of race, color, and national origin. The Community Relations Service, or CRS, also works with communities to employ strategies to prevent and respond to alleged violent hate crimes committed on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability.

CRS is the only federal agency dedicated to assisting state and local governments, private and public organizations, and community groups with preventing and resolving racial and ethnic tensions, incidents and civil disorders. CRS facilitates the development of viable, mutual understandings and agreements as alternatives to coercion, violence, or litigation. It also assists communities in developing local mechanisms, conducting training, and other proactive measures to prevent racial/ethnic tension and violent hate crimes.

CRS often partners with the Civil Rights Division, and works with tribal nations as well as with American Indian and Alaska Native populations in urban areas. Let me share a few examples of this work. In April, 2012, CRS worked with the Red Cliff Nation, Bayfield County, Wisc., and Bayfield County School District to facilitate another government-to-government Memorandum of Understanding. CRS’s assistance was requested after racial tensions between white and American Indian students increased in late 2011. Several school incidents included fights, name calling, racial slurs, and reports indicated that there was an ongoing atmosphere of mistrust between the white and American Indian communities. As a result of the CRS-led mediation, the parties agreed to collaborate on county government and tribal government quarterly meetings and to create a Tribal/County Relations Committee. The parties also agreed to cultural training, tribal and county law enforcement cooperation, tribal and county social service cooperation and school district, county and tribal collaboration on truancy issues, and collaboration on employment recruitment.

And last year, CRS worked with tribal leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul in response to an incident involving a bar that hosted a “Drink Like an Indian” themed event. The bar had distributed posters and emails showing an American Indian and a pilgrim slumped together on the floor and a woman dressed in mock American Indian garb. Tribal leaders raised concerns that the event would further negative stereotypes of American Indians while diverting attention away from a serious epidemic of alcohol and substance abuse. These concerns were aggravated by the outcry that arose within the community during the same period, following the fatal shooting of an Indian man by the Minneapolis Police.

CRS stepped in to help the community respond. The agency facilitated a series of conciliation meetings with local law enforcement, residents of a housing complex where many American Indians lived, health service providers and advocates to foster communication on sensitivities around substance abuse, negative stereotyping, and relationships with law enforcement. As a result of the dialogues, there is now a permanent representative from the American Indian community on the Minneapolis police chief’s monthly advisory roundtable. Furthermore, CRS helped the substance abuse program directors at the Minneapolis American Indian Center make connections within the U.S. Department of Health Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that will help them to better serve their community. CRS does work like this across the country, and can be an important resource to your communities.

I’ve given you a thumbnail sketch of some of the division and the department’s work here today. But this work is vital to ensuring that Native Americans – whether they live in Indian country or beyond – are afforded the protections guaranteed by our nation’s civil rights laws. It is critical to providing access to equal opportunity.

As Deputy Attorney General James Cole said this spring, we do this work not only because it is our legal responsibility as a government, but because it is our moral responsibility as members of a broad community. In that community, we all have a role to play to improve public safety and expand access to critical civil rights protections. We have the power of the law and the federal government behind us – you have your ear to the ground and the intimate knowledge of what happens in your communities. When you know of civil rights violations occurring, please let us know. We will continue to protect the civil rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Thank you all for being here today, and for sharing your experiences. division staff have been coming to NCAI meetings regularly for the past decade. We have developed many meaningful relationships. Those relationships have allowed us to gain traction in Indian Country. Those relationships have allowed us to use our authority to bring investigations and open matters that have made life easier, or more fair, or granted more opportunities for Native Americans. We are grateful to all of you, and hope that we can continue this dialogue. The entire Justice Department is committed to this effort. Together we can, and must, continue our work to build safer and stronger communities, and to expand access to opportunity and justice for everyone.

Thank you for inviting me to join you today.

Updated September 17, 2014