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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the 12th National Indian Nations Conference


Palm Springs, CA
United States

Thank you, Mary Lou [Leary]. I am grateful for your service to the Department of Justice, for your leadership in the Office of Justice Programs, and for your many efforts to strengthen tribal communities.

Let me also thank the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime, the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, and all the organizers of this conference for their work in developing an excellent, and comprehensive, program and bringing us all together. 

I know that many of you have traveled great distances to be here. I am grateful for your participation. And I am encouraged by the work that you are doing to ensure safety, opportunity, and, above all, justice in tribal communities.

In this time of growing demands and limited resources, the fact that a record number of attendees – more than 900 – have gathered for this conference is evidence of your commitment to meeting the challenges we face. And it speaks volumes about the impact and importance of this biennial meeting.

The roots of this conference stretch back more than two decades. In 1988, the Office for Victims of Crime organized the very first National Indian Nations Conference. Passage of the historic 1994 crime bill was still half a dozen years away. The Violence Against Women Act had not yet become law. The Office on Violence Against Women – that Sue Carbon now leads – had not been established. And one of the key authors of the Tribal Law and Order Act wasn’t even old enough to vote.

But thanks to several of the people in this room – and to your predecessors in this work – a critical, nationwide conversation began. Year after year, it has continued and expanded – bringing together law enforcement officers, community leaders and elected officials, tribal youth and tribal elders, lawyers and judges, policy experts and health and social services providers, and representatives from federal, state, local, and tribal governments.

Together, you have worked to bring tribal justice issues to light. You have forged and reinforced essential partnerships. You have raised awareness about the unique public safety challenges facing tribal communities – and the startling and wholly unacceptable rates of violence against Indian women and children. You have shared best practices and effective strategies – and promoted comprehensive, evidence-based solutions. You have demanded that tribal justice issues be at the forefront of national-level discussions. And you have reminded tribal, local, state, and federal leaders that we must never overlook the critical needs of victims.

This year, more than a third of the attendees at this conference are crime victims – survivors like Robin [Charboneau] – who have channeled pain into a positive force, and found their callings in assisting and advocating for other victims.

This work is not easy. But it is critically important. Not only do victim advocates and victim services providers help to restore hope, your efforts are often critical in the work of administering justice. You empower victims to work with law enforcement to hold offenders accountable. You educate the medical and legal communities about victim needs and challenges. 

And you remind us that our continued vigilance in safeguarding tribal communities is essential.

As you all know, on tribal lands, violent crime rates are now two, four, and – in some cases – ten times the national average. In too many tribal communities, lives have been scarred by violence and crime.

The status quo is alarming.  And it is unacceptable.

Tonight, I want to reaffirm the Justice Department’s commitment – and my own commitment – to building and sustaining healthy and safe native communities; to renewing our nation’s enduring promise to American Indians and Alaska Natives; to respecting the sovereignty and self-determination of tribal governments; and to ensuring that the progress we have achieved in recent years is not derailed.

Tribal justice and safety is a priority for the Justice Department. And I am proud that the Department has taken a number of steps to address public safety concerns in tribal communities.

In January, shortly after the tribal listening session that Mary Lou mentioned, I directed our nation’s U.S. Attorneys to meet annually with the tribes in their districts and to develop plans for addressing the specific public safety issues affecting tribal communities in their jurisdictions.  As part of this effort, I also instructed U.S. Attorneys Offices to work closely with tribal law enforcement, to develop strategies for reducing violent crime – and, in particular, violence against women.

To support this effort, we recently added 33 new Assistant U.S. Attorney positions in 21 judicial districts that cover Indian Country. And – to improve collaboration between federal and tribal prosecutors and law enforcement officers – we launched three Indian Country Community Prosecution Teams.

In July – as a result of the leadership and hard work that many of the people in this room provided – President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law. This landmark legislation is strengthening tribal law enforcement, enhancing our ability to prosecute crimes in Indian Country, and providing crucial support for substance-abuse prevention and treatment efforts.

This new law also has allowed the Justice Department to achieve one of its longstanding goals – the establishment of a permanent Office of Tribal Justice. After 15 years, OTJ is now a formal component of the Justice Department, dedicated to collaborating with our partners in tribal governments and to advancing our work in Indian country.

September marked another significant advance in nation-to-nation collaboration.  Through the Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation – known as CTAS – that Mary Lou referenced, the Department began administering nearly $130 million in grants to support the public-safety initiatives of federally recognized Indian tribes.  These investments will help to enhance law enforcement activities, bolster justice systems, prevent youth substance abuse, and serve victims.

Several weeks ago, I announced the first meeting of the Justice Department ’s Tribal Nations Leadership Council – a group composed of tribal leaders from around the country that will advise me on issues critical to tribal communities. This collaboration between representatives of tribal governments and the Justice Department’s leadership will be the first of its kind.

In the next year, I look forward to additional progress. The President’s fiscal year 2011 budget request includes nearly 450 million dollars for strengthening communities and public safety across Indian Country. These investments would provide more support for tribal justice systems, greater assistance for victims of violent crimes, and additional law enforcement personnel.

The Justice Department is committed to working with our partners in tribal police agencies to ensure that they have the resources necessary to do their jobs well. This is a priority for me.

Earlier this evening, I met with a group of tribal law enforcement leaders to assure them of this. 

The Administration and the Justice Department are committed to advancing the success of Tribal Law Enforcement – and to building on our strong record of collaboration. Working together, we can make certain that well-qualified officers are recruited and retained, that they have access to professional training programs and cutting-edge tools, that all crimes are investigated to the full extent of the law, that those who commit acts of violence are brought to justice, and that law enforcement and community members work more effectively together.

Now, I realize that I’ve covered a lot of different activities, initiatives, and investments.  Each one is critical to improving public safety in tribal communities. B ut the Justice Department’s efforts don’t stop here. 

We are also working to ensure justice and combat discrimination through the Department’s civil rights enforcement efforts.

We are using the tools and resources included in last year’s Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act to prosecute bias-motivated violence. Recently, we brought our first case under this landmark law. Last month, a grand jury indicted three men in Albuquerque on charges related to the racially motivated assault of a 22-ye ar-old man of Navajo descent. We allege that the defendants in this case branded – that’s right, branded – their victim with a swastika, and with other white supremacist and anti-Native American symbols.  We are moving forward with this case, and we will continue to seek justice for this victim.

We are also working to combat discrimination against American Indians in our lending markets, workplaces, and voting booths.

Last spring, we reached an agreement with a county in South Dakota to ensure the voting rights of Lakota-speaking American Indian voters. And in New Mexico, we recently monitored elections in Cibola and Sandoval Counties to ensure compliance with consent decrees that require election materials and information to be provided in Navajo, Keres and Towa.

And – just yesterday – I had the honor of joining President Obama as he signed the Claims Settlement Act into law. This legislation resolves longstanding discrimination claims – and will allow us to turn the page on an unfortunate chapter of unfair treatment against Native Americans.

Looking ahead, I expect the Department’s future activities to reflect the current efforts of the Indian Working Group that the Civil Rights Division recently re-established. This group is conducting outreach in Native American communities with the goal of establishing new channels of communication and cooperation.

This is critical. As we have learned, in order to be truly effective, the Justice Department needs to hear from you. You know what’s happening in the communities where you live and work. You know where crimes and civil rights violations are occurring. You know what challenges are emerging – and which are most urgent.

We need your insights. We want to hear your concerns and recommendations. And I will be relying on your continued engagement.

As the old Hopi proverb reminds us: Even the smallest pebble cannot be lifted by a single finger. If we are going to overcome the challenges before us – and if we are going to meet the goals and responsibilities that we share – then we must work together.

Our commitment – not only to “walking in harmony” – but also to working in partnership has never been more important.

So let us act with courage and wisdom – with confidence in each other and with faith in the promise of our collaboration and in the potential of our nation’s tribal communities. Let us build on the progress that we have made – together – to bring about what the President recently called “a new, brighter chapter in our joint history.”

Our work will not be easy. And our tasks may not be completed as quickly as we would like. But we must not be deterred. We must keep up – and we must strengthen – the work of improving the lives of those whose culture, blood lines, and communities can be traced to this nation’s indigenous people.

So, with a commitment to our shared values – and with due respect to the rich and unique heritage of tribal communities – let us continue the progress that we have begun. If we work together, we cannot fail. We owe this to those who have come before us – and to those who, one day, will walk the paths that we now tread.

Thank you.

Updated August 19, 2015