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Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarksat the White House Tribal Nations Conference


United States

Good morning – and thank you all for such a warm welcome.  I want to thank David [Gipp] for those kind words.  And I’d particularly like to thank Secretary [Sally] Jewell and her colleagues at the Department of the Interior for hosting this important Conference.

It’s a pleasure to join them, President [Barack] Obama, my fellow Cabinet members, and leaders throughout the Administration in welcoming such a distinguished group to Washington.  And it’s a privilege to stand with so many good friends, passionate advocates, dedicated tribal leaders, and essential Indian Country partners in reinforcing the ties that bind us to one another; renewing our commitment to working – with mutual trust and mutual respect – to address shared challenges;  and reaffirming our dedication to fulfilling the great promise of our government’s relationships with sovereign tribes.

I want to personally commend every participant in this year’s Tribal Nations Conference for taking the time to be here – and moving our nation closer to its most treasured ideals: of equality, opportunity, and justice under law. Especially in recent years, countless tribal leaders – both in and beyond this room – have stepped to the forefront of our efforts to preserve cultural values, to enforce treaty obligations, and to secure the rights and benefits to which all American Indians and Alaska Natives must always be entitled.

Together, through many generations, you and your predecessors have faced down tremendous adversity – standing up to those who once sought to terminate the federal government’s relationships with tribes. You’ve galvanized support for the rights of American Indians to maintain tribal governments – and to have a seat at the table before major reforms are enacted.  You’ve mobilized tribal nations to win passage of long-overdue laws not simply to regulate tribal affairs, but to allow all Native peoples to fulfill their own promise and chart their own paths.  As the ranks of your partners have grown, you’ve raised awareness about obstacles to tribal sovereignty.  And – with the assistance and support of public servants like my distinguished predecessor, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy – you’ve ushered in a new era of tribal self-determination that is now half a century old, and growing stronger every day.

 As we gather for this year’s Tribal Nations Conference – here in our nation’s capital, during American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month – it’s appropriate that we celebrate these and other momentous achievements.

 But it’s also necessary that we acknowledge that our relationships have not always been so constructive.  Far too much of our history has been defined by violence and deprivation.  Far too many promises have been broken.  Far too many tribes have been told that their lands, religions, cultures, and languages were somehow not theirs to keep.  That their rights could be abridged or denied without the guarantee of due process. That they could not vote.  And that the only course of action available to them would be to move on, to give up, and – quite simply – to forget.

Today, we declare that we must never forget.  We must never deny the injustice that – for decades upon decades – was inflicted on Native peoples. And we affirm that this painful past has informed, and given rise to, a sustained period of cooperation and self-determination – a period that began in a moment of national challenge, when the nation confronted a New Frontier.

Fifty years ago – in Bismarck, North Dakota – Attorney General Kennedy addressed the National Congress of American Indians.  At the time – just as it is today – NCAI was the largest intertribal organization in the country, a leading voice for tribal sovereignty, and a key partner to the Justice Department. Robert Kennedy spoke of the vision that he and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, harbored for a more free, more just, and more equal nation.  And, in what would become known as a historic speech, he told the assembled crowd that he stood before them at “a turning in the tide”:

“America,” he said, “. . . is moving forward, more rapidly and in more ways than ever before – moving toward the fulfillment of its destiny as the land of the free, a nation in which neither Indians nor any other racial or religious minority will live in underprivilege.”

 Half a century later, it’s clear that this vision has yet to be fully realized.  But it’s equally apparent that the last few decades – and especially the last five years – have been marked by significant steps forward:  to keep a nation’s promise.  To reclaim the brighter future that all of our citizens deserve.  To confront urgent challenges.  To move toward shared aspirations.  And to bring about the remarkable, once-unimaginable progress for which so many have been fighting for so long.  That which began in the New Frontier must continue, with increased vigor, into this new era for which we are all responsible.

For President Obama – and for me – this has always been more than a professional obligation.  It’s a personal priority.  As you heard during the video presentation, when I returned to the Justice Department as Attorney General in 2009, my colleagues and I made it a priority to listen to, to learn from, and to partner with tribal leaders.  And this renewed commitment to cooperation has yielded results we can all be proud of.

 Since January 2009, the Department’s Civil Rights Division, working with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, has prosecuted numerous defendants for victimizing Native Americans through sex trafficking, hate crimes, and police brutality.  The Division has also been active in enforcing the voting rights of American Indians across the country – including the right, in some jurisdictions, to access voter information in Native languages.

Alongside our counterparts at other federal agencies, we have prioritized the protection of tribal resources and the resolution of longstanding legal disputes.  Four years ago, the Departments of Justice and the Interior reached a historic settlement – totaling more than $3 billion, and approved by Congress as well as a federal court – which resolved the Cobell litigation, a class-action lawsuit that had been pending for a decade and a half.

More broadly, we’ve worked to protect water rights and natural resources on tribal lands. And we’ve vastly expanded our outreach to – and cooperation with – Indian tribes across the continent, institutionalizing ways to seek input on new policies; holding extensive training and listening sessions; and targeting precious resources to the areas where they’re needed most.

 Through our Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation, we’ve streamlined the process allowing tribes to secure federal assistance – awarding nearly $440 million in grants to help address an array of tribal justice issues. These funds are supporting efforts to intervene in the lives of at-risk youth and prevent violence against women; to improve community policing and explore alternatives to incarceration.

But they’re only the beginning – because, as a former United States Attorney, I know from experience that it takes more than financial support to combat crime.  Our ability to ensure just outcomes will always depend upon the sustained efforts of prosecutors, investigators, and victim services professionals on the ground – who work closely with, and genuinely understand, the communities they serve.  Leaders like U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon; his predecessor as Chair of the Native American Issues Subcommittee, Brendan Johnson; and other U.S. Attorneys whose districts include Indian Country exemplify our commitment to this work.  And this commitment is being strengthened every day by the tribal liaisons who have been appointed in each of the 48 U.S. Attorney’s Offices in districts that span Indian Country; by our dedicated FBI agents and victims specialists working full-time on tribal lands; and by the Tribal Nations Leadership Council we launched to advise me – and future Attorneys General – on issues of concern.

In July 2010, President Obama bolstered these efforts when he signed the Tribal Law and Order Act – which has strengthened tribal law enforcement, improved substance abuse prevention and treatment efforts, and enhanced our ability to prosecute crimes committed on tribal lands.  It also ensured that the Office of Tribal Justice will be a permanent part of the Justice Department.  

Taken together, these changes – along with programs like our National Indian Country Training Initiative, which has trained thousands of federal and tribal criminal justice professionals – have resulted in significant advances.  And our prioritization of close cooperation between U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and tribal leaders has brought about a notable increase in overall law enforcement in Indian Country.  In fact, in just the last three years, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices with responsibility for Indian Country prosecutions have seen their caseload of prosecutions for crimes committed on tribal lands increase by more than 54 percent. 

This is an extremely promising indication.  Yet there’s no denying that a great deal of work remains to be done.  And if we are to seize this opportunity to build on the progress we’ve seen, every person in this room must resolve here and now – as Robert Kennedy and his contemporaries once did – to mark this event not merely as an occasion for reflection, but as a moment of renewal, a time for action and positive change.

We must recommit ourselves to collaboration on an unprecedented scale – no matter the obstacles we face.  And we must declare – together – that, despite everything that’s been achieved, we will not rest as long as crime rates in so many tribal communities continue to exceed the national average.

We will not accept the shameful fact that American Indians are disproportionately likely to become victims of crime and violence.

And we will not tolerate a world in which nearly half of all Indian women and girls have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner.  And where Indian women are murdered at a rate that – in some places – is more than ten times the national average.  

We simply cannot stand for such an unjust and unacceptable status quo any longer.  And, as our record proves, we will not stand for it.

Last year, I was proud to join President Obama at a ceremony where he signed the newly-reauthorized Violence Against Women Act into law.  Thanks to the hard work – and fierce advocacy – of many of the people in this room, this reauthorization included tribal jurisdiction provisions to help tribal authorities combat violence against Native women – whether the perpetrators are Indian or non-Indian.  Those provisions were drafted and publicly proposed by the Justice Department, but they never could have become law without your staunch and strenuous support.  For that, I applaud you.  As the President noted, VAWA 2013 represented a historic step forward for tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction.  And all of us will keep moving forward together.

In August, I announced that – on the recommendation of the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence – the Department has launched a brand-new Task Force dedicated to addressing the unique challenges faced by children in Indian Country.  Since then, the Task Force’s working group of federal officials has made real progress in improving educational and programmatic services in youth detention facilities in Indian Country.  And today, I am pleased to announce that I have selected the Advisory Committee members who will help lead this new Task Force – including its distinguished co-chairs, former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan and Grammy-winner, and member of the Iroquois Nation, Joanne Shenandoah, both of whom are here with us today. Preparations are currently underway for the Advisory Committee’s first public hearing, which will be held on December 9th in Bismarck, North Dakota.  As the Task Force moves ahead, they’ll continue to work closely with a range of federal leaders to support and strengthen the work you are leading throughout tribal lands.

As a result of these partnerships – and the efforts of everyone here – our nation is poised to open a new era in our government-to-government relationships with sovereign tribes.  Fifty years after Robert Kennedy stood before a similar group of leaders, I have the great honor to join you in pledging to take this work to a new level.  And I am proud to announce today that the Justice Department will adopt a new Statement of Principles to guide all of the actions we take in working with federally recognized Indian tribes. 

This proposed Statement will codify our determination to serve not as a patron – but as a partner – in fighting crime and enforcing the law in Indian Country.  And it will institutionalize our commitment to Indian tribes – serving as a blueprint for reinforcing relationships, reforming the criminal justice system, and aggressively enforcing federal laws and civil rights protections.

Of course, this Statement of Principles will be meaningful only to the extent that it is crafted in consultation with leaders like you. That’s why we’ll make our draft available – today – on the Justice Department’s website, “”  We’ll share it directly with the leaders of all 566 federally-recognized tribes – so we can gain the benefit of your insights, your expertise, and your goals and aspirations.  Then, and only then, will we be in a position to finalize the Statement and publish it – by early next year – thereby establishing a set of core principles by which we can chart our future course. 

Ultimately, however, I realize that our future will be shaped – and our progress determined – not merely by the values that guide us, but by the individual men and women who work to translate these values into action.  Men and women who choose not to accept the world as it is, but fight to make real their vision of the world as it should be. 

In order to support this work – and to inspire and cultivate a new generation of public servants to carry it forward – it is also my privilege to announce the creation of a new component of the Attorney General’s Honors Program – known as the Attorney General’s Indian Country Fellowship.

As some of you may know, I first joined the Justice Department – more than 35 years ago – as a young attorney in this same Honors Program. Throughout my career, I’ve seen just how important, and effective, it can be when it comes to attracting skilled lawyers to careers in public service – and developing leaders at every level of the Justice Department.

Under our new Indian Country Fellowship, highly-qualified law school graduates will have the chance to spend three years working on Indian Country cases – primarily in U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, but also with opportunities to be detailed to the offices of tribal prosecutors.  This will create a new pipeline of legal talent with expertise and deep experience in federal Indian law, tribal law, and Indian Country issues.  And it will help to build capacity, combat violent crime, and bolster public safety in each of the jurisdictions represented here.

This, after all, is our chief obligation: not to deny our past, but to rise above it.  Not to minimize our tumultuous history, but to write a new chapter. Not to accept a reality that’s short of the ideal we envision, and the justice our citizens deserve – but to stand together, and speak with one voice, in order to bring about the changes we seek.

As I look around this room today – at so many passionate leaders and dedicated advocates from across the country – I can’t help but feel confident in our ability to do just that.  To fulfill the commitments we’ve made.  To ensure that good words are backed up by good deeds.  And, above all, to keep moving forward together – in common cause, with mutual respect, and with shared purpose.

I am grateful, and humbled, to count you not merely as colleagues – but as essential partners – in the considerable work that lies ahead.  I will always be proud to stand with you, and fight alongside you, in the struggle for tribal sovereignty, self-government, self-determination, civil rights, and equal justice. And I look forward to all that we will do – and achieve – in the months and years to come.  This is my pledge.  This must be our common endeavor.

Thank you.

Indian Country Law and Justice
Updated August 18, 2015