Janet Reno in May 1998. Photo by Elvert Barnes Photography
Janet Reno, who was the first woman to serve as Attorney General of the United States, died on Monday. She was 78.
Reno ran the Department of Justice for nearly the entire eight years of the Bill Clinton administration. Her work there finally opened the doors for Indian Country, President John Yellow Bird Steele of the Oglala Sioux Tribe said.
“At the Oglala Sioux Tribe, we mourn the passing of Janet Reno." Steele said. "Before Attorney General Reno took office, we had a hard time working with the Justice Department, even though they have law enforcement responsibility in Indian Country. She really took the government-to-government relations to heart."
One of Reno's top priorities during her tenure was law enforcement on reservations. One of her programs enabled the tribe to expand its police force, improve its court system, focus on youth and enhance victim assistance services, according to a 2010 report from the National Institute of Justice.
“She really embodied the best of the federal government in terms of her service to real people and her impact on real lives,” Steele said.
Such initiatives drew praise throughout Indian Country. In 2000, the United South and Eastern Tribes said Reno's work "had a profound impact" on law enforcement on reservations in their region.
"Before Europeans came to this great
land, Indian nations had their own enduring
traditions of justice," Reno said in a 1998 address to the organization. "The health of the community was placed ahead of the individual's aspirations, and the life of the community was
often viewed as part of an eternal circle."
During the speech, Reno noted that she became familiar with Indian Country while growing up in Florida. Her mother was a reporter who covered environmental, legal and other issues facing the Seminole Tribe and the Miccosukee Tribe, who are members of USET.
Even at that young age, she said members of the tribes gave her a first-hand lesson in what they are seeking out of their dealings with the United States: "sovereign-to-sovereign relations based on mutual respect and regard." When she became a prosecutor in Florida, she became more familiar with their justice needs and she worked to bring that experience to the nation's capital.
"If the federal government is working together, that's good, but it won't be very effective unless it listens," Reno said at a self-determination conference in 2000.
Early on in her tenure, a chance encounter with another powerful figure turned out to be a fateful one. After hearing about the federal government's mismanagement of the Indian trust fund, Reno invited the late Elouise Cobell to Washington, D.C.
But when Cobell, who as a former treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation had long dealt with the federal bureaucracy, showed up to Justice headquarters in February 1996, the attorney general wouldn't meet with her. In June of that year, she ended up filing a landmark lawsuit that ensnared both the Clinton and Bush administrations before it was finally settled by President
Barack Obama for $3.4 billion.
As Reno's years in Washington came to a close, she faced intense pressure with regard to imprisoned American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier. She refused to reveal what recommendations she may have made to then-President Clinton, who ultimately did not take action on the matter.
Peltier, who is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, remains in federal prison, where he is serving two life terms in connection with the 1975 murders of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux. He is 72 years old and has suffered from numerous health problems in recent years.