Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West Speaks at the Federal Advisory Task Force on Research on Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women Living in Tribal Communities

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 8, 2013.

Thank you, Bea, for that kind introduction and your leadership on this task force and in our Office on Violence Against Women.

It’s a great privilege to be here and on behalf of all of us at the Department of Justice, I want to thank all of you, for your dedication to addressing violence against Native American women.

We have had a lot to celebrate the last couple days, and yesterday I was proud to witness President Obama sign the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act into law.   The reauthorization not only includes the provisions that Vice President Biden fought so hard for 20 years ago to protect all women, but it also includes the critical tribal jurisdiction provisions to help Indian tribes combat violence against Native women. 

From the time non-Indians first came to this continent, and right up through the founding of our Nation, Indian tribes routinely exercised authority over all individuals who committed acts of violence on Indian lands.   In 1978, in the Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe case, the U.S. Supreme Court took that power away, holding that tribes lacked criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, absent express authorization from Congress.   Last week, thanks largely to your efforts, we got that authorization, and now perpetrators of domestic and dating violence will be held accountable, whether they’re Indian or non-Indian.   And countless Indian women will enjoy safer lives as a result.

I know that no one has fought harder for Native American women than the people in this room and serving on this Task Force, so I congratulate you on this landmark occasion.  

Now, our challenge, our collective challenge, is to make sure that this new law is well implemented.   This is important for at least three reasons.   First, it will benefit public safety.   Second, it will protect the legitimate rights of the accused.   And third, it will maximize our ability to protect this law from challenge.   So we’ve already begun to meet with tribes to talk about how we can best prepare tribal judicial systems for successful implementation.

This is also a great chapter in our government-to-government relationships.   You and your colleagues raised these issues with Senator Obama when he was running for President in 2008, and you raised it with Justice Department officials in a long series of formal and informal tribal consultations.   And we heard you, and we took action – just as the President promised more than four years ago.   In July 2011, the Department proposed the very language that, with a few tweaks, has now been enacted by Congress.   And every step of the way, we profited from the strength of tribal leaders and Federal officials, working hand in glove, in a true partnership.

Over the last four years, this Administration has cultivated that partnership, and under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, we at the Justice Department have worked hard to strengthen tribal sovereignty and improve tribal safety.   We have established the Office of Tribal Justice as a permanent component within the Justice Department.   We’ve created the Tribal Nations Leadership Council to facilitate consultation and advise the Attorney General on issues critical to tribal governments.   Under the leadership of Leslie Hagen, we’ve launched a National Indian Country Training Initiative, which has trained more than 2,000 criminal-justice professionals.   And we’ve assigned additional federal personnel to investigate and prosecute cases on Indian lands, including a dozen FBI Indian Country Victim Specialists.

So we’ve made some excellent progress.   While we celebrate the past and current successes, we must also look toward the future.   Our work in Indian country is far from over, and if we’re to build on that progress and tackle the uniquely difficult challenges that tribal communities still face, we cannot rest.

We cannot rest as long as crime rates in many tribal communities remain far above the national average.   We cannot rest as long as tribal members suffer disproportionately from violence, property offenses, and other criminal acts.  

As I have stated many times in the past, there is an urgent need for more and better research, evaluation, and data, and the Department is committed to making this happen.  

At the heart of our research efforts is NIJ’s research program on violence against women that will collect information from enrolled American Indian and Alaska Native women living in Indian country and Alaska Native villages.   This is the first comprehensive national research program of its kind.   NIJ’s groundbreaking program of research aims to achieve the mandates outlined in the the 2005 reauthorization of VAWA to decrease the incidence of violent crimes against Indian women; to strengthen the capacity of Indian tribes to exercise their sovereign authority to respond to violent crimes committed against Indian women; and to ensure that perpetrators of violent crimes committed against Indian women are held accountable for their criminal behavior.

Once again, I would like to thank each Task Force member for your participation. Your expertise and insights are invaluable, and this partnership–much like our partnership in the reauthorization of VAWA with critical tribal jurisdiction provisions–has been pivotal to developing, and now, implementing this much needed program of research.