Thank you, Tim [Purdon], for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be in Bismarck this afternoon. And it’s a great privilege to join so many distinguished tribal leaders, dedicated law enforcement colleagues, passionate advocates, and other critical Indian Country partners for this fourth annual Tribal Consultation and Conference – as we reinforce the ties that bind us together and strive to address the crime and public safety challenges we share.
I know many of us are mindful – as we convene today – of the tragic and untimely loss of the Justice Department’s own Gaye Tenoso, who passed away this week at the age of just 60. Gaye had served the Department in a number of important roles for more than two and a half decades, most recently as Deputy Director of our Office of Tribal Justice. She was a passionate advocate for civil rights, an enrolled member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi Nation, and one of the most senior American Indians ever to serve the Justice Department. She was an inspiration to many and a lifelong champion of federal-tribal cooperation through important gatherings like this one. As we carry on her work this afternoon, and in the months and years ahead, I want to express my condolences to her family, her colleagues, and all who knew her. She will be sorely missed.
Since its inception, this regular consultation has provided an important forum for constructive dialogue; a meeting ground where federal, state, tribal, and local leaders can gather to confront emerging threats; and a unique platform for unprecedented engagement and action. Through the comprehensive Anti-Violence Strategy you’re helping to refine – alongside U.S. Attorney Purdon and his colleagues, who have set the standard for federal cooperation on tribal lands – you’re demonstrating the power of strong relationships and the value of frank discussion. From prosecutions of dangerous criminals like Valentino Bagola – and law enforcement actions like Operation Winter’s End, which has resulted in the arrests of 40 alleged members of a major drug trafficking organization – we’re taking a stand to improve public safety. Through efforts that are underway right here at United Tribes Technical College to combat sexual assault, you’re protecting our young people and supporting those at risk and in need. And as a result of the shared trust and mutual respect that federal and tribal leaders have built in recent years – from Fort Berthold to Spirit Lake; from Standing Rock to Turtle Mountain – together, we are having a tremendous, positive impact on the lives of Indian people across this great state.
Throughout the country, similar efforts are being led by dedicated members of all 566 federally-recognized tribes. They’re being implemented – on the ground – by FBI agents and victims specialists who work full-time on tribal lands. And they’re being driven by leaders like Tim; his outstanding predecessor as Chair of the Native American Issues Subcommittee, Brendan Johnson; and 46 other U.S. Attorneys whose districts include Indian Country. There’s no question, as we come together today, that we can all be proud of the work that’s taking place – and the steps we’re taking together – to improve public safety, to ensure tribal sovereignty, and to advance the cause of self-determination.
Yet there’s also no denying that our recent progress has come in the shadow of decades of conflict and injustice – when great wrongs were committed against Indian peoples, all too often in the name of the United States government. When the fundamental rights of American Indian and Alaska Native communities – to shape their own destinies – were far from assured. When hostility, mistrust, and outright discrimination characterized the relationships between federal officials and tribal leaders. And when misguided actions – and broken promise after broken promise – denied or abrogated the lands, languages, religions, and unique cultures that constitute the heritage and the birthright of every American Indian.
We gather in a spirit of partnership this afternoon. But we cannot deny this painful past. We must both acknowledge and confront the lingering impacts – and the deep scars – inflicted by centuries of violence and deprivation. And especially as we come together to build on the remarkable, once-unimaginable steps forward that have characterized the last few decades – and especially the last few years – we should also be mindful of the historic shift that took place right here in Bismarck just over half a century ago: when my predecessor as Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, stood before the National Congress of American Indians and described his vision for “a nation in which neither Indians nor any other racial or religious minority will live in underprivilege.”
In that landmark speech – delivered 51 years ago this September – Attorney General Kennedy marked what he called a “turning in the tide” with respect to the federal government’s relationships with sovereign tribes. He and the NCAI leaders who stood with him helped bring a long-overdue end to a dark period in our shared history. And together, despite setbacks and false starts, they ushered in a new era that would come to be defined by trust, respect, and tribal self-determination.
In the years after that historic address, Robert Kennedy frequently returned to Indian Country to see through the commitment he’d made. He visited desperate communities on the Pine Ridge Reservation and, like me, sacred memorials like Wounded Knee – consecrated by the blood of the innocent dead – meeting men and women in the grips of terrible poverty and grave neglect. On what was to be one of his last trips – among the many that took place during his “last campaign,” for the presidency, in 1968 – he famously spent hours getting to know a young orphan named Christopher Pretty Boy, even inviting him to spend the summer with the Kennedy family in Massachusetts.
Tragically, it was an offer that would never be fulfilled. Less than two months later – exactly 46 years ago on this date, June 5th – Robert Kennedy’s life was cut short by an act of senseless violence. And within the year, Christopher Pretty Boy also passed away – a victim of the high youth mortality rate that Robert Kennedy had worked to bring to light.
In the decades since then, countless citizens have rallied to ensure that Robert Kennedy’s good words were backed up by good deeds. Legions of men, women, and principled young people have stood together to call for civil rights, public safety, and self-government. And today, a new generation returns to Bismarck to reclaim the vision that our predecessors left for us. To reach, once again, for the more just and more inclusive future they imagined. And to rededicate ourselves to the considerable work that remains before us – and the continuation of the progress with which we’ve been entrusted.
For President Obama – and for me – this work has been a top priority since the moment we took office. Shortly after I returned to the Justice Department as Attorney General in 2009, I held an extensive listening session in Indian Country – so I could hear directly from tribal leaders. My colleagues and I worked hard to translate everything we learned into a blueprint for action. And as a result, over the last five years, we’ve convened a Tribal Nations Leadership Council to advise me, and future Attorneys General, on areas of concern. We’ve secured legislation making the Office of Tribal Justice a permanent component of the Department, and worked to institutionalize our commitment to cooperation so that future Administrations can build on the progress that we make today.
This commitment is yielding positive results. Since January 2009, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and our U.S. Attorneys’ Offices have significantly increased prosecutions against those who victimize American Indians. Further, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across Indian Country have seen their prosecution numbers increase since 2009 as a result of closer working relationships with tribal law enforcement partners. This means safer reservations. And we’ve exercised critical enforcement tools to safeguard the voting rights of Indians across the country – including at Spirit Lake in 2010 – as well as the right, in some jurisdictions, to access voter information in Native languages.
Alongside other agencies throughout the Administration, the Justice Department has fought to protect natural resources and water rights on tribal lands. We’ve prioritized the resolution of longstanding legal disputes. And we’ve vastly expanded our outreach to tribes across the continent – by expanding avenues for engagement and discussion; by soliciting constructive tribal input on new policies; and by targeting scarce federal resources to the areas where they can have the greatest impact.
From the Tribal Law and Order Act to last year’s landmark reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act – which, for the first time ever, included critical provisions helping tribal authorities combat violence against Native women, regardless of whether the perpetrators are Indian or non-Indian – this Justice Department has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with men and women in Indian Country to help fight for historic change. As many of you have heard, the President will be visiting North Dakota soon – fulfilling his pledge to visit a Reservation this year. We’re proving that this is an Administration that keeps its promises. We will not shrink from even the toughest challenges. We will honor our obligations to sovereign tribes. And all of this is only the beginning.
Last November, I stood before the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington to announce a series of significant actions to improve the Justice Department’s ability to address challenges throughout Indian Country. Half a century after Robert Kennedy stood before a similar group of leaders, I announced that the Justice Department would adopt a new Statement of Principles to guide our interactions with Indian tribes; to institutionalize our commitment to serving tribal populations; and to reinforce our efforts to make the criminal justice system work for every citizen.
Since I delivered that speech, we have made our draft statement available to the public. We’ve shared it directly with the leaders of all 566 federally-recognized tribes. And we have solicited feedback and guidance on every point – because we understand that this statement will be meaningful only if it bears the input and approval of tribal officials.
Today, I am pleased to report that we concluded the consultation process in March. We received the last written input from tribal leaders in April. And we are working as we speak to finalize this Statement of Principles – so it can be published and put into full effect this summer.
In November, I also announced that the Department had created a new Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence. This Task Force is comprised of two parts: an advisory committee of experts, who have been asked to take a deep look at the impact that violence has on children in Native communities, and a federal working group that is positioned to take immediate, concrete steps to make lasting improvements for our young people.
I’m proud to say that the working group – which includes representatives from the Justice Department, the Department of the Interior, and the Indian Health Service – has been meeting regularly. And they’re currently hard at work to improve educational opportunities for juveniles who are detained by law enforcement, to bolster training opportunities for federal employees working in Indian Country; and to seek new ways to integrate existing services to better assist children on tribal lands.
Our advisory committee has also been extremely active. They’ve held three public hearings to date – including one right here in Bismarck. And their fourth and final hearing is scheduled to convene in Alaska next Wednesday.
Finally, in November, I also announced the creation of a new Indian Country Fellowship program – which will provide highly-qualified law school graduates with the chance to spend three years working on Indian Country cases, primarily in U.S. Attorneys’ Offices. This will create a pipeline of top-flight legal talent with expertise – and extensive real-world experience – in federal Indian law, tribal law, and Indian Country issues. I am pleased to report that we recently made public the list of participating U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for 2014. And we will begin accepting the first round of fellowship applications at the end of next month.
Programs like this one – and efforts like our Task Force and the new Statement of Principles – are predicated on the notion that America’s future will be defined, and our progress determined, by much more than the sum total of our actions, our intentions, and even the values that guide us. Our future lies squarely with young people like those who choose to get an education here at United Tribes Technical College. Our course will be charted by generations of leaders and public servants who have the courage to serve their communities and stand up for their convictions. And our destiny will be decided by passionate, idealistic men and women who remember and honor the victims of past injustice by working to inspire, to train, and to cultivate the leaders of tomorrow – allowing our young people to learn, to grow, and to thrive – here in North Dakota and far beyond.
Earlier today, I had the chance to meet with a group of ambitious, highly-driven students from across this area – many of whom have overcome tremendous adversity to be here. This meeting was held as part of the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative – a call-to-action that’s bringing together federal agencies, foundations, corporations, and community leaders to help keep our young people on the right path; to knock down the barriers they face; and to ensure that every American’s ability to get ahead is determined by his or her work ethic, goals, and potential – not by the circumstances of their birth.
This, at its core, is the promise we’re striving to fulfill through My Brother’s Keeper. It’s the vision we’re moving toward in all of our efforts to partner with Indian Country leaders. And it’s the aim that drives our continuing work to support and empower Indian people.
In the months and years ahead – as we carry this work into the future and continue the fight for sovereignty and self-government – I want you to know how proud I am to stand alongside you. I am both honored and humbled to count you as partners. And as I look around this crowd – of colleagues, friends, and distinguished tribal leaders – despite the wrongs and injustices of our troubled past and the obstacles that undoubtedly lie ahead, I can’t help but feel confident in our ability to move forward together – speaking with one voice, standing as one people, and building on the legacies of those who have gone before.
May their examples continue to inspire us. May their efforts continue to guide us. And may we continue to honor their lives, and their sacrifices, in all of our daily work.