Thank you, Tom [Perrelli], and good morning, everyone.
It is a pleasure to join so many colleagues and distinguished guests as we celebrate American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. And it is a special privilege to welcome our keynote speaker, Kimberly Teehee, who serves as Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs on the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Let me also thank [Director] Tracy [Toulou], [Deputy Director] Gaye [Tenoso], and their team in the Office of Tribal Justice – as well as [Director] Richard [Toscano] and the Equal Employment Opportunity Staff in the Justice Management Division – for organizing today’s program.
Each November, we come together to honor the history and cultural traditions of America’s indigenous peoples. And we celebrate the contributions and sacrifices that American Indians and Alaska Natives have made in defense of our nation’s strength and prosperity. On far away battlefields and in the halls of Congress – from New York to California and West Virginia to Washington State – generations of American Indians and Alaska Natives have distinguished themselves by their service to their country. We recognize them today. And we renew our nation’s enduring promise to American Indians and Alaska Natives: To respect the sovereignty and self-determination of tribal governments, and to build healthy, sustainable tribal communities.
Although there is a remarkable tradition of progress to celebrate, there is also a history of injustice that we cannot overlook. And there are unfortunate, and urgent, challenges facing tribal communities today that we must not ignore. Significant disparities in the rates of unemployment and violent crime continue to persist, depriving too many of the chance to pursue the bright futures they deserve. Addressing these challenges won’t be easy.
But this Administration and this Justice Department are committed to fulfilling our nation’s obligations to American Indians and Alaska Natives, to strengthening the government-to-government relationship between tribes and the United States, and to building more secure, more prosperous tribal communities.
During last year’s celebration, I noted that it would take a sustained commitment from the Justice Department to address the public-safety challenges that we face in Indian Country and tribal communities. Today, I am pleased to report that our commitment remains strong and that we have made meaningful progress over the last year.
In January, I directed 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. In the upcoming year, we will be working closely with Congressional leaders to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act – legislation that has been essential in guiding and enhancing our efforts to combat and prevent violence against women in tribal communities.
And in July – following an Administration-wide effort led by our keynote speaker – 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 supporting substance-abuse prevention and treatment efforts across Indian Country. 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 government and to advancing our work in Indian country. And although the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act was a significant milestone in our effort to bolster tribal law enforcement and to improve public safety in Indian Country, we cannot – and we will not – rest on our laurels.
In the next year, I expect continued progress. The President’s fiscal year 2011 budget request includes nearly $450 million to strengthen communities and public safety across Indian Country. And through funding allocated by the COPS Office, OJP, and the Office of Violence Against Women, tribal governments will be able to hire additional law enforcement personnel, strengthen tribal justice systems, and better assist victims of violent crimes.
As the Justice Department continues these efforts, we will work in partnership with tribal governments. I expect to meet with the Tribal Nations Leadership Council before the end of the year, and I look forward to their assessments of the Department’s work in Indian Country, and to their recommendations for improving our performance. And I am confident that the Justice Department’s efforts to protect public safety in Indian Country will be more effective because of this government-to-government collaboration.
This year, let us honor American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month by working together to create safer, stronger American Indian and Alaska Native communities. I am proud to count you as partners in this effort. And I look forward to building on our recent history of progress to ensure what the President recently called “a new, brighter chapter in our joint history.”
This is a priority for this Attorney General and for this Department of Justice. Let us endeavor to make the promise of our work together a reality for all those who have suffered for far too long.