REMARKS AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY BY DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL JAMES M. COLE AT THE DEPARTMENT Of JUSTICE’S ANNUAL AMERICAN INDIAN/ALASKA NATIVE HERITAGE MONTH COMMEMORATIVE PROGRAM
Thank you, Tom, for that kind introduction and for the enormous contributions you’ve made to all of the Department’s work on tribal justice and public safety in Indian Country.
It’s an honor and a pleasure to join so many colleagues and distinguished guests as we celebrate American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. And it is a special privilege to welcome our keynote speaker, Hilary Tompkins, who serves as Solicitor of the Department of the Interior. Appointed by President Obama in 2009, Solicitor Tompkins is the first Native American to hold that position. She is a member of the Navajo Nation, and we are extremely grateful for her many contributions to this Administration.
I would also like to thank Director Tracy Toulou, Deputy Director Gaye Tenoso and their dedicated team in the Office of Tribal Justice – as well as Director Richard Toscano and the Equal Employment Opportunity Staff in the Justice Management Division for organizing today’s important event.
Each November, we come together to honor the history and cultural traditions of America’s indigenous peoples. We remember the sacrifice that American Indians and Alaska Natives have made in defense of our nation. And we renew our nation’s enduring promise to respect tribal sovereignty and self-determination, and to build healthy, safe and sustainable tribal communities.
As stated in President Obama’s proclamation for last year’s National Native American Heritage Month, “America’s journey has been marked both by bright times of progress and dark moments of injustice for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Since the birth of America, they have contributed immeasurably to our country and our heritage, distinguishing themselves as scholars, artists, entrepreneurs and leaders in all aspects of our society.”
The Administration and this Department are committed to helping build upon those bright times of progress and redress, where possible, the dark moments of injustice. Early in this Administration, Attorney General Eric Holder established a Department-wide initiative on tribal justice and public safety to address the significant public safety challenges facing many Native American tribes. Our colleagues at the Department of the Interior – particularly Solicitor Tompkins – have been crucial partners in that effort.
Through the Attorney General’s initiative, we are seeking to improve the Department’s enforcement efforts and grant programs in a host of areas.
This initiative is driven in part by our federal responsibility to give justice to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes where justice is lacking. We understand that in many instances, because of the unique jurisdictional requirements for Indian Country, if the Department of Justice does not act, no other entity has the power to do so. And we carry a sense of urgency born of both the lessons of history and the pressing needs of today.
To ensure that our law enforcement efforts in Indian Country are as effective as possible, last year the Department directed United States Attorneys’ Offices across the country to work with tribal law enforcement to develop strategies to reduce violent crime – and, in particular, violence against Native women and children. The Attorney General has increased the number of Assistant United States Attorneys dedicated to Indian Country and has launched a Violence Against Women Federal and Tribal Prosecution Task Force to facilitate dialogue and coordinate efforts on the prosecution of violent crimes against women in Indian Country.
The Department, acting through the Environmental and Natural Resources Division, also protects over 60 million acres of tribal lands and resources. We bring suit to protect treaty rights, defend reservation boundaries and assert much-needed water rights. These suits help fulfill the promise that reservations can serve as homelands where tribal sovereignty and culture can flourish.
We worked with Congress, the Department of the Interior and other agency partners to ensure that the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 would become law, and we continue to work to implement it today.
The Department also recently proposed legislation that would significantly improve the safety of Native American women. The proposed legislation recognizes tribes’ inherent authority to hold perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for their crimes on tribal lands and enhances federal penalties for serious crimes of domestic violence. With the addition of these tools, we hope to stem the tide of violence facing so many Native American women and girls.
Finally, we are pleased that – working closely with Solicitor Tompkins and the Department of the Interior – the Department was able to finally resolve the long-standing claims raised in Cobell v. Salazar and to join the late Elouise Cobell in announcing that resolution.
As we honor American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage month, we work to build on our continued progress strengthening tribal law enforcement. We work to enhance our ability to prosecute crimes in Indian Country, and we work to reinforce a strong government-to-government relationship.
These are priorities both for the Department and for me personally. I count you all as partners in this effort, and I am confident that we can work together to create safer, stronger American Indian and Alaska Native communities.