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Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Remarks at the Justice Department’s American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month Observance Program


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Tracy [Toulou], for your kind introduction, and for the dedication you and your team show every day to advancing tribal justice.  I am honored to welcome all of you to the Department of Justice’s American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month Program.  As we recognize this important month, I’d also like to thank all of those throughout the Department who work to improve our government-to-government relationship with tribes and to further tribal justice, as well as those who worked to create today’s event.

American Indians and Alaska Natives, the first Americans, have made enormous contributions to our society, including our military, economic, academic, and social institutions.  Tribal traditions like the Iroquois Great Law of Peace have helped shape our values and system of government.  

In celebrating these contributions, we must also acknowledge that the federal government’s relationship with Indians has also been marked by violence, mistreatment, discrimination and broken promises. 

It is vitally important that we recognize both the contributions and sacrifices of Native Americans, and our obligation as citizens of this country and representatives of the federal government to honor our moral and treaty obligations to the tribes.

That’s why the Attorney General made it a priority early in his tenure to meet with tribal leaders and hear their needs and concerns.  Based on this input, he established a Department-wide tribal justice initiative, to translate that dialogue into action.  Since January 2009, every part of the Department has assisted with that action – from the prosecution of those who abused Native Americans through sex trafficking, hate crimes, and police brutality – to the protection of tribal resources and historic settlements of longstanding legal disputes.

We have issued a memorandum to U.S. Attorneys to guide their interaction with tribes and ensure that each U.S. Attorney’s Office that has tribes within its district meets with those tribes to develop a specific plan to address public safety in Indian country.  We have streamlined the process for tribal grant applications.  And we worked to amend the Violence Against Women Act so that, for the first time, tribes may prosecute non-Indians who commit certain acts of domestic violence against Native women.

All of these efforts have helped the Department better fulfill its obligations to tribes.  But more importantly, they have helped support and strengthen tribes in their efforts to control their own destinies and provide for their people.  

During today’s program, you will hear from two members of the Attorney General’s Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence, which was established in this same spirit of support for tribal self-determination.  The Task Force was established as part of the Attorney General's Defending Childhood Initiative, a project that addresses the epidemic levels of exposure to violence faced by our Nation's children, and in response to a recommendation in the December 2012 final report of the Attorney General's National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence.

The members who join us today are – Valerie Davidson (Yup’ik), Indian Health Advocate and Parent, and Joanne Shenandoah, PhD (Iroquois), Composer and Singer, who also serves as the Task Force Co-Chair.  Ms. Davidson has dedicated much of her professional life to addressing matters affecting Indian health.  Ms. Shenandoah is one of America’s most celebrated and critically acclaimed musicians.  She is a Grammy Award winner, with more than 40 music awards (including a record thirteen Native American Music awards) and sixteen recordings.  Their work with the Task Force is an important part of the Department’s efforts to ensure tribal justice and public safety.  

The theme of this year’s American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month is “Native Pride and Spirit: Yesterday, Today and Forever.”  I hope that today’s commemoration will be more than an observance.  Rather, we should rededicate ourselves to the essence of this theme – ensuring that the wrongs of the past are remembered, so they won't be repeated, and that the federal government continues it's commitment to being a true partner for tribes in creating a stronger, more independent future. 

Updated November 19, 2014