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Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Speaks at theJustice Department’s American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month Event


Washington, DC
United States

Good Morning. Thank you, Tony, for that kind introduction. I am honored to join all of you today for this celebration of American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. And it is a pleasure to welcome Assistant Secretary of the Interior Kevin Washburn – who is a Department of Justice alumn – back to the federal family. This annual commemoration is a time to recognize the important sacrifices and contributions of Native Americans, who are a fundamental part of the strength and history of this nation. It is also a time to examine both the legacy of the past, and our present relationship of cooperation and respect with Native American tribes.

In remembering the past, we must acknowledge that while Native Americans, the first inhabitants of this great continent, have made enormous contributions to America, from the very beginning, in ways large and small, the federal government’s treatment of tribes has been marred by injustice. We were reminded of that earlier this month, shortly before Veterans’ Day, when the nation mourned the death of George Smith -- one of the Navajo code talkers, who used the Navajo language to transmit tactical information for the U.S. Marines during World War II. Their code, which was never broken, is credited with helping the United States win the war. Yet when the Navajo code talkers returned as heroes of World War II, they and other Native Americans were denied the right to vote. That indignity, just one example among many, is a powerful symbol of the work that must be done to ensure that America honors its commitments to the first Americans.

That work is critical to the Department of Justice’s mission of ensuring equal justice and public safety. It is also a moral duty for all of us in the Administration, and we must not compound past mistakes through delay. I am pleased to have the partnership of Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn and all of our colleagues at the Department of the Interior and across the Administration in fulfilling that duty.

Early in his tenure, Attorney General Holder created a Department-wide initiative to improve tribal justice and public safety for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Through that initiative, we have forged a new relationship with tribal nations, and we have strengthened government-to-government ties, grounded in mutual respect for one another.

Perhaps most importantly, we are working with tribal nations to address the many serious public safety concerns affecting their communities. Tragically, many tribes face staggering rates of violent crime, and often have too few resources to address them. Accordingly, improving our response to violent crime in tribal nations is a top priority for the Department. Beginning in 2010, all United States Attorneys with Indian country in their jurisdictions were required to develop, after discussions with tribal leaders, specific operational plans for addressing Indian country crime – particularly crimes involving violence against women. United States Attorneys’ Offices are engaged in an unprecedented level of collaboration with tribal law enforcement, consulting regularly with them on crime-fighting strategies in each District, participating in joint task forces, sharing case and grant information, training investigators, and cross-deputizing tribal police and prosecutors to enforce federal law and to allow deputized tribal attorneys to bring cases directly to Federal court.

We have added new Assistant United States Attorney positions to prosecute Indian country crimes, and new FBI investigators and FBI Victim Specialist positions to investigate crimes and to assist crime victims in Indian country. As a result of these efforts, the number of new Indian country cases filed by the United States Attorneys’ Offices increased 42 percent from Fiscal Year 2009 to Fiscal Year 2011.

The Attorney General has made clear the Department’s grave concern about the alarming rates of domestic violence in tribal communities, where violent crime rates are now two, four, and – in some cases – ten times the national average. The status quo is unacceptable. That's why the Justice Department has proposed legislation that would close significant legal gaps and give Indian Country law enforcement officials, investigators, and prosecutors the tools they need to crack down on violence against women.

This proposal, included in the legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act that passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support earlier this year. The Administration is encouraging Congress to come together and pass a bipartisan measure that protects all victims. The Violence Against Women Act has been improved each time that it has been reauthorized, and this time should be no different.

We also are working with our colleagues at the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies and with tribal governments to fulfill the mandates and the vision of the Tribal Law and Order Act, so that – together with our tribal partners – we can build safer, more secure tribal communities.

Through the hard work of Associate Attorney General Tony West, his predecessor Tom Perrelli, and the efforts of the leadership and attorneys in the Environment and Natural Resources Division, the Civil Division, and the Department of the Interior, we also have resolved many longstanding Native American legal claims against the United States. The historic Cobell settlement became final on November 24, 2012, following action by the Supreme Court and expiration of the appeal period. As a result, the parties are now preparing for the first distribution of payments to class members. The resolution in Cobell and the settlement in the Keepseagle case are finally bringing an end to years of contentious litigation.


In addition, the Department has resolved over 56 lawsuits filed over the management of monetary assets and natural resources held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the tribes. These settlements are helping to heal old wounds and may spark economic growth that will provide much-needed opportunities for those in Indian country.

We are also working to support tribal cultural and religious practices and to protect tribal lands. In October 2012, after extensive tribal consultation, the Department of Justice adopted a formal policy addressing the ability of tribal members to use eagle feathers for religious and cultural purposes. The policy, which clarifies and expands upon longstanding Department of the Interior policy in response to tribal concerns, provides that the Department will enforce federal wildlife laws in a manner that respects the ability of members of federally recognized tribes to use eagle feathers and other bird parts in traditional ceremonies. The Departments of Justice and the Interior have also been working closely with tribes to facilitate tribal members’ access to eagle feathers for religious and cultural purposes and to address concerns about the effects of enforcement of federal wildlife laws on tribal religious and cultural practices.

Last month, the Department of Justice also held its first training program for tribal and federal law enforcement officials and prosecutors on enforcement of wildlife and other pollution laws. The Department of Justice worked closely with the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency to develop this training program. The program was aimed at developing tribal capacity to assume a greater role in enforcing wildlife and pollution laws that affect tribal lands and at promoting federal-tribal partnerships to handle such cases.

The Departments of Justice and the Interior have defended reservation boundaries and the status of tribal land holdings in a number of cases. These cases help define the scope of tribal, state, and federal authority, thus providing certainty about matters such as criminal jurisdiction and provision of governmental services.

Finally, we also streamlined the process for applying for Department of Justice tribal grants, to reduce the red-tape that hampered tribes’ efforts to obtain needed funds for tribal justice projects, and put in its place a coordinated approach that targets needed resources identified by the tribes, such as community policing, juvenile justice, domestic violence, or alcohol and substance abuse, among other areas.

While this progress has been important, it is only a beginning. We know that much work remains to be done. In the years to come, we look forward to strengthening our partnership with tribal nations, and to building even more effective collaborations with our colleagues at the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies. Together, we will achieve the goal of a new and brighter future for tribal nations. I look forward to continuing that work with the help of all of you.

Thank you very much.

Indian Country Law and Justice
Updated May 3, 2017