Attorney General Jeff Sessions of the Department of Justice. Photo: U.S. DOJ

Department of Justice announces Indian Country initiatives after facing criticism

The Trump administration announced another round of Indian Country initiatives after facing criticism on Capitol Hill about its commitments to the first Americans.

Appearing at a pre-scheduled tribal conference, the third ranking official at the Department of Justice announced $130 million in grants. The funds will support a wide range of efforts in Indian Country, including those to combat violence against Native women and to help victims of crime.

“Supporting our tribal partners as they work to protect their communities remains fundamental to our mission at the Department of Justice,” Associate Attorney General Brand said in a press release on Tuesday. “These awards stand as a clear expression of our support for Native American women and tribal self-determination and reflect the vital role we believe American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages play in ensuring the safety of all our citizens.”

Just last Wednesday, the department came under fire at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. A career bureaucrat would not commit to tracking Native victims of trafficking out of concern that victims would be reluctant to come forward.

But advocates for Native women and key lawmakers pushed back against that explanation. Without data, it's nearly impossible to determine how to allocate resources, such as funding for victims services, they said.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing on "The GAO Reports on Human Trafficking of Native Americans in the United States"

“We need increased accountability for buyers and sellers and increased safety for American Indian and Alaska Native victims of sex trafficking,” said Nicole Matthews, a citizen of the White Earth Nation who serves who serves as the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition.

Recipients of the grants indeed plan to use the funds to combat violence against women and help victims of crime. The Fort Peck Tribes, for example, will use a combined total of $1.3 million in grants from the Office of Violence Against Women and the Office for Victims of Crime for those purposes.

Tribes in Oklahoma will receive more than $18 million to address similar issues in their communities. A handful, like the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation and the Ponca Tribe, are also reaching out to Native youth, another issue raised at last week's hearing, with funds from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

“Reducing violent gang and gun crimes in Indian Country is crucial to protecting citizens who live in and around tribal communities," said U.S. Attorney R. Trent Shores of the Northern District of Oklahoma. "The justice community must also look to help those with mental health and substance abuse issues to re-enter society as productive citizens. These federal grant allocations will help to further those goals.”

In addition to the funding announcement, the department selected another 15 participants for the Tribal Access Program. The tribes will gain access to national crime information systems to help keep their people safe.

The systems include data about domestic violence protection orders and missing persons, as well as information that can assist tribes in placing children in foster homes. Tribes can also conduct background checks when hiring people who work with vulnerable populations.

“The Tribal Access Program provides tribal governments access to federal crime information databases containing highly useful information, such as criminal background records, outstanding warrants, and domestic violence protection orders,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the second ranking official at the department, said in a press release. “When federal, state, and tribal governments share information, it makes communities and law enforcement officers safer. It helps solve crimes and protect people from being victimized.”

Lisa Marie Ayotte, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, appears with then-president Barack Obama at the signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act on July 29, 2010. Photo: National Congress of American Indians

The Tribal Law and Order Act required the government to open the systems to tribes. But despite the prior administration's high level support for the effort -- then-president Barack Obama held an emotional signing ceremony for the bill at the White House in July 2010 -- it took another five years before the program got off the ground.

Since 2015, a total of 36 tribes have been selected to participate in the program. According to the department, they have used the information systems to apprehend an alleged kidnapper and prevent domestic violence offenders from acquiring firearms.

Despite the announcements and the department's participation in the tribal consultation in Arizona this week, members of the Trump team are merely carrying on initiatives started by their predecessors. The packaging of the grants, for instance, represents a direct outcome of the Obama administration's White House Tribal Nations Conference, in which key officials, including the president himself, met every year with tribal leaders to hear their concerns.

Rather than require tribes to apply separately for grants offered by sub-agencies and offices at the department, the Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation allows them to secure funds in a consolidated fashion. The effort began in fiscal year 2010 and continues with the latest announcement.

After taking office in February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to improve law enforcement and public safety in Indian Country. Eight months later, he has not announced any new policies or asked for more funding to address high rates of crime and victimization of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Instead, he has largely focused on immigration enforcement and gang activity he has repeatedly linked to immigrants.

When he served in the Senate, Sessions declined to co-sponsor the Tribal Law and Order Act in 2010 even though it had bipartisan support. More significantly, he actively opposed the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 because it recognizes tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians in limited circumstances.

The historic provision, which has been implemented without major problems, was a "big concern," Sessions admitted during his confirmation hearings. When pressed further about the law, he refused to say whether he would defend what the prior administration said was an inherent right of tribes to arrest, prosecute and punish non-Indian offenders.

Nicole Matthews, the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition, testifies at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on trafficking of Native Americans on September 27, 2017. Photo: SCIA

In contrast, advocates for Native women and lawmakers believe tribes need expanded jurisdiction over non-Indians. Through her landmark research and in her testimony last week, Matthews explained how Native trafficking victims are usually targeted by persons of other races. Other studies have tied high rates of domestic violence to non-Indians.

"The federal government could be doing more now to help Native victims who are slipping through the cracks,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The 12th annual Tribal Consultation on Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women concludes on Wednesday. It is being hosted by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and the trafficking of Native Americans is a major focus, according a framing paper distributed in advance of the event.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on "The GAO Reports on Human Trafficking of Native Americans in the United States" (September 27, 2017)

Government Accountability Office Reports:
Action Needed to Identify the Number of Native American Victims Receiving Federally-funded Services (April 6, 2017)
Information on Cases in Indian Country or that Involved Native Americans (July 24, 2017)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Report:
Racial and Ethnic Differences in Homicides of Adult Women and the Role of Intimate Partner Violence — United States, 2003–2014 (July 21, 2017)

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