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Briggs: Undermining trust: Gonzales' legacy in Indian country

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In a scant two and a half years as the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales presided over far-reaching attempts to undermine U.S. trust responsibility to Indian nations.

He advocated for a cheap settlement of the Cobell case, which even more outrageously was contingent upon ending U.S. trust responsibility to tribal nations. His Justice Department leaked a litany of nitpicking objections to Congress in an effort to derail health legislation for American Indians. And he undoubtedly participated in the politically motivated firing of eight respected U.S. attorneys, including five who were leaders in prosecuting violence on Indian lands.

Yet Gonzales wasn't a flag-waving anti-Indian of the Slade Gorton, former U.S. senator from Washington, ilk.

No. Former attorneys for the Justice Department, including Kevin Washburn, the visiting Oneida Indian Nation professor at Harvard Law School, say that Indians were simply not on Gonzales' radar.

''In some ways, he had a negative effect on Indian policy; not because he was hostile, but because he didn't find it important,'' Washburn said. ''He found his own agenda more important.''

Gonzales' agenda was rewiring the department from the strict ethic of law to the politics of the Bush administration. By the time Gonzales was confirmed attorney general by the U.S. Senate on Feb. 3, 2005, he was already neck-deep in the post-9/11 cold war on American civil liberties.

As White House counsel, he doggedly advocated for the National Security Administration's eavesdropping on the American public without warrants, including a shameless hospital-bed visit to pressure then-Attorney General John Ashcroft into extending the program. He wrote a now-famed memo calling the Geneva Conventions for prisoners of war ''quaint'' and not applicable to people imprisoned by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and other places.

But it was the firing of U.S. attorneys in a series of phone calls made last December that was Gonzales' undoing.

His reported 122 ''I don't know'' answers to congressional investigators about the firings nearly landed the nation's chief law enforcement officer with contempt citations.

When Gonzales is written into history, these internationally appalling acts will upstage even the considerable achievement of having been the first Hispanic to serve as attorney general of the United States.

His abject ignorance about American Indians may only rate a footnote.

But it's that ignorance that left the Justice Department's door wide open for his young, neoconservative staff to take aim at Native nations' sovereignty.

The politicos around Gonzales tried to unravel long-standing federal safety net programs such as health care and law enforcement. These programs, which include the IHS, were designed to uphold in the 21st century some of the U.S. treaty responsibilities to Indian nations. Some of the missiles launched during Gonzales' tenure follow:

"In late 2006, the Republican Steering Committee circulated an undated, anonymous white paper challenging the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the authorizing legislation for the IHS, because of the supposed liability in the government providing medical, hospice and suicide prevention service;

"A letter dated March 1, 2007, from Gonzales and the Interior Department's Dirk Kempthorne to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., proposed settling the Cobell suit and other Indian land claims for $7 billion over 10 years, and extinguishing of the U.S. trust relationship with Indian nations;

"Without consulting Indian nations, Congress passed provisions, proposed by the Justice Department, in the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act that gave local law enforcement the right to establish sex offender registries on sovereign Indian lands if those nations failed to sign up by July 27, 2007.

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The firing of U.S. attorneys catalyzed opinion inside and outside Indian country against Gonzales. Speaking at the National Congress of American Indians' midyear conference in Anchorage, Alaska, some of the fired attorneys exposed Justice Department politicos for targeting six members of the Native American subcommittee.

These six, most of which were appointed by Gonzales predecessor John Ashcroft, had prioritized working with tribal nations to prosecute violent crime and methamphetamine use on reservations.

''The rug was pulled out when Gonzales came in,'' Washburn said, ''because Gonzales said there is no local agenda: there is only a national agenda.''

Tom Heffelfinger's name first appeared on the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired ''around the time'' of the Red Lake High School shooting, which happened a month and a half after Gonzales' appointment. At the time, Heffelfinger was the U.S. attorney in Minnesota. Heffelfinger quit after wrapping up work on the shooting in 2006.

But his name emerged during congressional hearings about the firings in 2007. Monica Goodling, who was then senior counsel to Gonzales and the Justice Department, said that Heffelfinger had been on the list of attorneys to be fired because he'd spent too much time on Native issues. Heffelfinger said he was working on the Red Lake shooting during the time that his name appeared on the list.

''The Red Lake shooting was the worst act of homicidal violence in Minnesota and the third worst act of school violence in the U.S.,'' Heffelfinger said. ''You could well say that it was one of the most important cases I had to deal with when I was U.S. attorney.''

For an ideologue like Gonzales and his staff, even the prosecution of crime took a back seat to values like the strict enforcement of the death penalty and the investigation of any hint of vote fraud, especially by Indians or other low-income communities of color who might skew toward the Democrats.

Still, Gonzales or someone made the decision for him to reach out to Native Americans at moments in his tenure.

Eleven days before his resignation, Gonzales traveled to the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. But what sticks in my mind is his visit in March 2006 to Yakama Nation in Washington state. His entourage traveled across the reservation to the White Swan High School gymnasium where, wrapped in a blue Pendleton blanket, he stood greeting students.

The students in this high school are mostly Yakama, but some are the children of Mexican immigrants, some of whom came to the agricultural valley of the Yakama Nation as migrant farmworkers. Could Gonzales see himself, a son of former migrant farmworkers, or his children in these students?

A tribal leader speaking at the National Congress of American Indians' midyear conference in Anchorage remarked that maybe Gonzales hurt us a little more because he was a person of color who, passing on the street, we might say hello to.

Since that June 2007 conference, NCAI President Joe Garcia and Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson had sought a meeting with Gonzales. Finally, they were scheduled 11 a.m., Aug. 27. Staff told them the attorney general was running late, about 15 minutes. They waited while the attorney general of the United States resigned.

Suddenly, Alberto Gonzales had all the time in the world.

''Gonzales didn't have the kind of independent mindset that makes a great attorney general,'' Washburn said. ''He let the White House set the agenda, and he marched like a soldier rather than acting like a general and setting his own.''

Kara Briggs is associate director of the American Indian Policy & Media Initiative at Buffalo State College and a columnist for Indian Country Today. Reach her at