Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Associate Attorney General [Stuart] Delery, for that kind introduction – and for your hard work on the vital issues that we are here today to discuss. It’s a pleasure to welcome everyone to the department this afternoon and it’s a privilege to join so many distinguished tribal leaders, dedicated colleagues and passionate advocates for this important conversation about the challenges we face, the progress we’ve made and the work we’ll continue to do – together – to ensure the safety, security and well-being of the communities we love.
It is a tragic fact that violence affects women of every background in every region of the United States. But the story is even worse for women in Indian Country, where in recent years violence against women has become an epidemic. The numbers, as you know all too well, are shocking. According to a nationwide survey by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), one-third of American Indian women experience rape. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that nearly 40 percent of Native women have been victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by a spouse or partner. And an NIJ-funded survey found that, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average. Until recently, jurisdictional issues, flawed statutes and insufficient resources prevented tribal and federal law enforcement from effectively addressing these heinous acts, especially when the perpetrators weren’t Indians – even when the incident involved a non-Indian man assaulting his Indian wife on tribal land.
This has been a fraught and deeply challenging issue. But with the decisive action and vital partnership of leaders across Indian Country – including many of the men and women in this room – we have made encouraging progress, most notably through the bipartisan passage of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA), which incorporated provisions recommended by the Justice Department that, for the first time in decades, empower Indian women who experience abuse by non-Native men. That historic piece of legislation recognized tribes’ inherent ability to exercise special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction over all offenders on their lands. It made clear that tribal courts are fully entitled to enforce civil protection orders. And it strengthened federal sentences for certain acts of domestic violence in Indian Country, ensuring that wrongdoers are held wholly accountable for their crimes, regardless of where they occur.
The leaders of the Tulalip and the Pascua Yaqui tribes have led the way in implementing these essential provisions. Along with Oregon’s Umatilla tribe, you were the first three tribes to be selected as part of a pilot project to exercise your jurisdiction in domestic violence matters before the law took full effect this past March. Thanks to your determination, perseverance and vigilance, you demonstrated that with greater control over your own lands and closer partnership with the federal government, justice can and will be done. Over the course of the pilot year, more than 25 cases have been brought against non-Indians by tribal prosecutors – and more than 200 defendants have been charged under VAWA’s enhanced federal assault statutes. Just as crucially, you’ve been working to ensure that other tribes can replicate and build upon your promising success through your participation in the Department of Justice’s Inter-Tribal Working Group, where you’ve described your experiences, recommended best practices and shared tools and technical assistance with more than 40 fellow nations. Your sustained and concerted efforts send a clear message that no individual is above the law and that no one should ever be denied the law’s protection – no matter who they are or where they live.
In this work and in all of the Obama Administration’s efforts in Indian Country, we have been proud to work together with sovereign tribal nations to expand opportunity, to promote equal justice and to replace a shameful historical pattern of mistrust, disregard and termination with a strong commitment to partnership, collaboration and respect. Under the leadership of my predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, the Department of Justice deepened cooperation between tribal justice leaders and U.S. Attorney’s Offices to an extent that had never been done before. We deployed tribal Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys to prosecute Indian Country cases in federal and tribal courts alike, resulting in stronger working relationships and a sharp increase in federal prosecutions on tribal lands. We created a Tribal Nations Leadership Council made up of men and women elected by their peers to advise the Attorney General on matters critical to Indian Country. We succeeded in passing the Tribal Law and Order Act, which has significantly broadened tribal authorities’ capacity to uphold the rule of law. And we took important steps to institutionalize our approach so that the partnerships we’ve built can be as durable as they are effective. In one of my own first acts as Attorney General, I called on Congress to help remove barriers to voting in Indian Country so that American Indians and Alaska Natives can enjoy the full participation in our democratic institutions that is their fundamental right. And I will continue to promote and advance all of these efforts to help bolster the sovereignty of tribal nations, as well as the safety of Indian and Alaska Native communities.
Of course, I have no illusions that the challenges we face will be easily overcome. These are complex issues with long and difficult histories. But as I look around the room at this remarkable group of leaders, partners and friends, I’m hopeful about all that we will achieve and I’m eager to continue the work we have begun together. Thank you once again for being a part of today’s conversation. Thank you for your trust and your partnership. And thank you for your steadfast devotion to the cause of justice.