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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Joint Native American Issues Subcommittee and Attorney General’s Advisory Committee Meeting


Rapid City, SD
United States

Thank you, U.S. Attorney [Brendan] Johnson, for your kind words and for the outstanding work you are leading. In addition to your service on behalf of the people of South Dakota, I’m especially grateful for your contributions as Chairman of the Native American Issues Subcommittee. Your efforts – and the partnerships that your office has forged with key leaders, including many of the men and women in this room, have enhanced government-to-government communication, renewed the broad engagement of South Dakota’s diverse tribal communities, and paved the way for deeper understanding and closer collaboration between leaders and law enforcement officials across this state – and far beyond.

I’d also like to thank Associate Attorney General [Tom] Perrelli and Assistant Attorney General [Ignacia] Moreno for their participation in this important conference earlier today, and for their commitment to improving lives, expanding opportunities, and strengthening public safety in Indian Country. I’m grateful for all they’ve done to ensure that this work remains a priority – not just for our nation’s Department of Justice, but for this Administration at the highest levels.

Most of all, I want to thank each of you for lending your voices to what I know – and what I pledge – will be an ongoing conversation. It’s a conversation that this Subcommittee has been leading since its inception – and I have no doubt that we stand poised to write another extraordinary chapter in its history.

We have come together at a critical moment. A year ago this week, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law. This landmark piece of legislation has enhanced our ability to prosecute crimes in Indian Country, strengthened law enforcement capabilities across relevant jurisdictions, and brought a wide – and expanding – array of local stakeholders to the discussion table. It also has established new channels for communication and cooperation between tribal authorities and federal agencies like the Bureau of Prisons and the FBI, allowing them to share both information and resources like never before. We are working closely with our federal agency partners, particularly at the Departments of the Interior and Health and Human Services, to implement the law. We are also finalizing a Memorandum of Agreement with these Departments to coordinate the federal response to alcohol and substance abuse issues facing American Indians and Alaska Natives. And with the input and assistance of tribal governments and experts, we have developed a long-term plan to address juvenile and adult detention, corrections, reentry, and alternatives to incarceration.

Among these and other provisions, the new law also has enabled the Justice Department to achieve a longstanding goal: the establishment of a permanent Office of Tribal Justice. Thanks to the leadership of its Director, Tracy Toulou, and the great work of his team – this Office is playing a critical role in bolstering the Department’s efforts to improve public safety in Indian Country.

Over the last year – even as the Justice Department has worked to implement the Tribal Law and Order Act – we also have sought to make good on President Obama’s call to consult with tribes on issues that affect them, and to coordinate our activities with our tribal partners. Today, the Department is working closely alongside tribal governments. We’ve also reestablished the Civil Rights Division’s Indian Working Group, and taken meaningful steps to improve how the federal government addresses tribal justice issues.

To that end, the Department of Justice has added dozens of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and victim-witness specialists in judicial districts that encompass tribal communities, to better address the serious public safety challenges facing many tribes. I’m especially pleased that three of these AUSAs have been added right here in Brendan’s district – two of whom are enrolled members of tribes here in South Dakota. And, last September, we appointed a highly skilled community prosecutor – Gregg Peterman, who has become a regular presence on the Pine Ridge Reservation – to lead a new initiative aimed at strengthening ties between tribal community residents and federal law enforcement. I’m glad to see Gregg here today. And I’m especially proud that, across the country, it has become commonplace for U.S. Attorneys and AUSAs to join with tribal leaders in developing and implementing innovative public safety plans.

Now, I know that this work isn’t easy. But it is critically important. We all can be, and should be, encouraged by the remarkable – and, in many ways, unprecedented – progress that’s been made over the last year. But I am not yet satisfied. And, as every person in this room knows, significant challenges, and serious obstacles, remain before us.

For me, no challenge is more urgent than protecting women and girls living in tribal communities. In some areas, nearly three out of five women have been assaulted. Some statistics suggest that as many as one third of all American Indian women will be raped at some point in their lives. And, in some parts of Indian Country, women are murdered at rates that are many times the national average.

This is as shocking as it is unacceptable. This situation must, and will, be reversed. That’s why – in addition to the law enforcement assistance and enhanced sentencing authorities provided to tribal courts under the Tribal Law and Order Act – the Justice Department recently proposed legislation that would close significant legal gaps and give Indian Country law enforcement, investigators, and prosecutors the tools they need to crack down on violence against women.

Under current law, tribes lack the authority to hold criminals accountable for many domestic violence offenses. Nationwide, more than half of all Native American married women have non-Indian husbands – yet tribal courts are unable to prosecute non-Indian defendants, even for crimes committed on tribal lands. And, even in cases where the perpetrator is caught and convicted in tribal court, sentences are often severely limited.

Our proposed legislation would correct these distortions, close these loopholes, and restore the intent of Congress when it passed the Violence Against Women Act. It would clarify that tribal courts have full civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection orders involving anyone – Indians and non-Indians alike. It would recognize the power of certain tribes to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence any defendant who commits domestic violence in Indian Country. And it would lift a six-month cap on the sentences for many assaults, instead providing for one-year, five-year, and – where appropriate – ten-year offenses, based on the severity of the crime committed.

In and of themselves, these legislative fixes are both simple and highly targeted in scope. And I believe that their impact on public safety in tribal communities would be nothing short of profound. So, today, I urge Congressional leaders to act upon these proposals, so that we can provide tribal governments, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers with the tools and authorities necessary to combat today’s epidemic of violence, and to restore the long-standing promise of justice across Indian Country – especially to the women who live there.

This new legislation would build upon the work we’ve done within the Justice Department – and across the Obama Administration – to implement the Tribal Law and Order Act. With such a step – and with our continued efforts – I am confident that meaningful change is within our reach.

This afternoon, I want to reaffirm the Justice Department’s commitment – and my own personal 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.

I know this fight will not be easy, and that it may take longer than we would like to achieve the results we need. Despite this, we must do everything we can, as quickly as we can, to address this problem. Too much is at stake. Too many lives are at risk. But we can’t do this alone. To be truly effective, the Justice Department must have – and will continue to rely on – the engagement, insights, and expertise of tribal leaders and community members.

You know where crimes and civil rights violations are occurring. You know what challenges are emerging – and which are most urgent. Most of all, you know what works and what doesn’t. And that’s why your input – and, above all, your partnership – is so essential in achieving the goals that we share.

That’s also why conferences like this one are so important. They provide not only a forum for candid discussion – and robust government-to-government communication – but a clarion call to action. This is an opportunity for federal officials and tribal leaders to join forces, as we have today, to explore – and to refine – our joint strategies for addressing the public safety challenges faced by tribal communities – and to pledge our ongoing commitment to overcoming these challenges together.

As we conclude, I would like to thank each of you for taking the time to make this conference a success. I am proud to stand with you; I am grateful for your assistance; and I am honored to call you partners.

Mindful of an oftentimes painful history – and focused on a future that can, and must, be better – let us dedicate ourselves to the work before us. We will be judged, not only by the promises we make – but also by the results we achieve. Together, let us forge a path forward that respects age-old traditions – and reflects our faith in a future that is just, and worthy of the proud legacies you represent.

Updated August 18, 2015