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Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Speaks at the 2012 Oklahoma Sovereignty Symposium


Oklahoma City, OK
United States

Thank you, Sandy, for that generous introduction, and for the continuing commitment that you and the entire federal team here in Oklahoma bring to the Department’s work in Indian country.

I would also like to thank the Oklahoma Supreme Court and all of its co-sponsors for organizing today’s event. I am honored to be among the distinguished speakers—including Representative Tom Cole, the Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor, former Attorney General Janet Reno, the Honorable 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Henry, Chickasaw Astronaut John Herrington, Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Mills, the World War II Indian Code Talkers, and many more—who have traveled to Oklahoma City, either presently or in the past, to participate in this Symposium. It’s truly a unique forum, bringing together tribal leaders, state and federal governments, academics, judges, and members of the public.

Respect for tribal sovereignty, which inspires the title of this Symposium, underlies all of the work that the Department of Justice does to further tribal justice and public safety. In much of Indian country, we alone have the authority to seek a significant term of incarceration when a serious crime has been committed. But more importantly, it is also a moral duty to ensure public safety in all of our Nation’s communities. Given this important legal and moral responsibility to prosecute violent crime in Indian country, in reality, we can only be effective if we have partnerships and close cooperation with tribes, based on respect for tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

From the very beginning of this Administration, Attorney General Holder recognized the need to make tribal public safety a priority. We know that many tribal nations are struggling to combat staggering rates of violent crime with inadequate resources. The status quo is—quite simply—unacceptable.

In response, Attorney General Holder launched a Department-wide effort to fight crime and strengthen tribal justice systems. The overarching goal has been not only to improve our own efforts, but also to support the efforts of tribal nations as they develop the institutions and expertise needed to address public safety issues themselves.

In these efforts the Department has made significant progress. Today, we are communicating and collaborating with tribal leaders and law enforcement more than ever before. We have expanded training. We have proposed legislation to combat violence against Native women. We have renewed our commitment to environmental justice by redoubled efforts to ensure that all Americans, including the first Americans, enjoy the benefit of a fair and even-handed application of the Nation’s environmental laws. This Administration has also resolved longstanding and historical tribal trust claims that for far too long have been a source of tension between the United States government and tribal nations.

The Department has increased direct engagement with tribal leaders in two tangible ways—first, Department officials have convened numerous listening sessions to engage in a shared dialogue with tribal leaders. These sessions not only help us understand the needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives, they also help us find common solutions. But listening is not enough. We also have to do something based on what we hear. And what we heard was that there needs to be respect for tribal sovereignty and Indian self-determination, there needs to be engagement on a government-to-government basis, and there needs to be close coordination and cooperation.

To this end we have designated, in each United States Attorney’s Office with Indian country in its jurisdiction, an attorney to be the dedicated liaison with tribal leaders and to work with the tribes and other law enforcement to develop operational plans to enhance public safety and reduce violent crime.

As we all know, dealing with public safety issues in Indian country presents a unique set of challenges. Without a firm understanding of those challenges, our efforts cannot be successful. To address this, the Department has launched a national training program to give federal, state, and tribal criminal justice personnel the skills and the tools needed to respond effectively to crime. In March, Oklahoma hosted one of a series of national training courses. The three-day training had 35 class participants representing seven tribes from the surrounding region and one county sheriff’s office.

The course, taught by the Department’s National Indian Country Training Coordinator and four Assistant United States Attorneys from districts around the country, focused on criminal jurisdiction in Indian country, sexual assault and domestic violence, and the investigation and enforcement of drug and firearm offenses in Indian country. Successful completion of the class allowed participating officers to receive a Special Law Enforcement Commission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, so that tribal police can investigate and make arrests in federal cases. This is particularly important in states like Oklahoma that have checkerboard jurisdiction. These commissions also help build the capacity of tribal law enforcement to keep their communities safe while strengthening federal-tribal partnerships.

The devastating impact of domestic violence cuts sharply and deeply through tribal communities. Rates of violent crime are two times, four times, even ten times what they are in other communities across the country. American Indians are two and a half times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races, and one in three Indian women reports having been raped during her lifetime. This is not only profoundly disturbing, it is totally unacceptable.

Episodes of domestic violence do not happen out of nowhere. They typically start small, and when allowed to occur without consequences for the perpetrator, grow more frequent and more violent. Under the current legal framework, tribes lack the authority to prosecute such perpetrators, even if they live on the reservation and are married to a tribal member.

But once tribes have developed their own prosecutorial and criminal justice systems, they should have the essential government authority to protect their members, and to stop escalating domestic violence before it is too late.

To address this, the Department has proposed legislation to recognize tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes of domestic violence and dating violence. This proposed legislation would close significant legal gaps and give tribal courts and law enforcement officials the ability to hold non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for their crimes. It would also enhance federal penalties for serious crimes of domestic violence.

This proposal is part of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that recently passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support. Many of you in this room contributed to the proposal, which was based on input and formal consultation with tribes. Although the proposal has bipartisan support in both chambers, and we are grateful for the strong leadership of Congressman Cole on this issue, the House recently passed a version of the Act that did not include key provisions of the proposal that would address this critical domestic violence issue. We remain optimistic, however, and urge Congress to adopt a bipartisan measure that includes the tribal proposal and helps stop domestic violence early, before it causes grave harm.

In addition to our efforts to strengthen public safety, the Department has also made environmental justice a priority. Environmental justice is fundamentally about ensuring that all Americans, particularly Americans in economically disadvantaged areas, receive fair treatment under the environmental laws.

As a critical part of our work in this area, the Department has been working hard to ensure that tribes have meaningful input into environmental decisions that affect them. The Department—including our Environment Division, Civil Rights Division, and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices around the country—has been conducting outreach on environmental and natural resource issues in communities across the country, including tribal communities in Oklahoma, Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Washington State, New Mexico, and Arizona. When presented with environmental enforcement litigation affecting tribes, we make sure we coordinate whenever possible with those tribes.

As one example, last year, the United States reached agreement with a food processing company, the Orval Kent Food Company, to settle allegations that its Baxter Springs, Kansas facility overloaded the city’s wastewater treatment system with millions of gallons of industrial wastewater, at times causing pollution in the Spring River in Kansas and Oklahoma. That river flows through the lands of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. As we approached a settlement with the company, we made sure to consult with the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, and through that consultation we were able to include in the settlement a requirement that the company re-stock fish in the Spring River watershed. This important aspect of the settlement quickly and directly addresses the needs of this tribe and shows what can be accomplished through close collaboration.

We have also worked hard to settle longstanding disputes between the United States and Indian tribes. One example is the historic settlement of Cobell v. Salazar. That case was one of the largest class actions ever brought against the U.S. government. What began in 1996 saw seven full trials; went up to the Court of Appeals 11 times; and has been the subject of intense, and sometimes difficult, litigation. Working together to resolve these claims has righted historic wrongs, and has turned a new page in the relationship between the United States and tribal governments.


As many of you know, the Department has also recently announced the resolution of more than 40 cases involving historical claims regarding the management of monetary assets and natural resources held in trust by the United States for the benefit of tribes. Concluding settlements for these cases—together totaling over $1 billion—has also put an end to years of protracted litigation and strained relations. And, like the Cobell settlement, it marks an important milestone in the government-to-government relationship between the United States and Indian tribes.

In these and many other ways, the Department is fulfilling its trust responsibilities and strengthening its partnership with tribes. These changes are making a difference, and mark a new chapter in the history of our Nation. But with all we have accomplished, we know that there is still much work to be done, and an important tool in accomplishing that work is the institutionalization of the Department’s collaboration with tribal governments. We need to make sure that this continues regardless of what administration is in office. This transcends politics. It is about our commitment to safety and equal justice for all of the people in our country’s communities.

The institutionalization of this federal-tribal collaboration has already begun. Congress, in enacting the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, took a major step forward. The Tribal Law and Order Act brought long-overdue reforms that will over time further empower tribal governments, and strengthen their ability to keep neighborhoods safe and to hold criminals accountable. At the same time, the law places new obligations on the federal government to work in partnership with tribal authorities to address public safety.

The Department has embraced those responsibilities. We have established the Office of Tribal Justice as a component of the Department, and established as a permanent position its Director. The Office serves as the principal point of contact for federally recognized tribes, promotes uniformity of Department policies and litigation positions relating to Indian country, and coordinates with other federal agencies and with State and local governments on their initiatives in Indian country.

The Tribal Law and Order Act also codified the position of Native American Issues Coordinator in the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. The permanency of both of these positions within the Department—as well as the addition of appointed tribal liaisons to serve as the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices primary point of contact with tribes in their districts—has made and will continue to make real strides in institutionalizing and advancing federal-tribal coordination and communication.

The history of interaction between the government of the United States of America and the governments of the many Indian tribes that have lived on these lands for thousands of years has been troubled. Too many times, there was hostility where there could have been collaboration, there was suspicion where there could have been cooperation, there was a lack of respect where there should have been an appreciation of your sovereignty. The Department of Justice and the Administration know that is not how any members of any community in our country should be treated—and I can tell you that those days and those attitudes are over. Our commitment to you is to work with you, treat you with respect, listen to you, and include you. Not only as a sovereign government, but also as an integral part of the American community.

Thank you.

Indian Country Law and Justice
Updated May 3, 2017