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First female Native US attorney airs her concerns

WASHINGTON - Many have asked how Native justice issues have been affected since the infamous spate of firings of U.S. attorneys in 2006 - 07. Five of the eight attorneys dismissed under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales were viewed as keen advocates for Indian issues, and some in Indian country have wondered whether their advocacy played a role in their firings. Diane J. Humetewa, a glass ceiling-breaking Hopi woman who actually replaced one of those fired, shared her thoughts on the issue and the challenges she faces in an interview with Indian Country Today.

Indian Country Today: How did the opportunity arise for you to become a U.S. attorney?

Diane Humetewa: The opportunity arose when one day I was sitting in my office, and the telephone rang - a gentleman said, 'Please hold for John McCain.' Sen. McCain simply asked me whether I wanted to provide this service for Arizona. Frankly, I was pretty taken aback and surprised and flattered. I felt I certainly couldn't say no. ... I took the oath of office in December, and was formally sworn in a month and a half later.

ICT: How does it feel to be the first female Native U.S. attorney?

Humetewa: First of all, I think it really is a position that if someone asked me 10 or five years ago whether I thought I'd ever be in this position, I probably would have laughed and said, 'Yeah, right.' It really is for me - when I go out to visit not just Native communities, but communities across the state - really humbling. Many times, Native females Come up to me and say I'm their role model.

ICT: Do you think that Department of Justice actions on Native justice issues were impeded as a result of the recent U.S. attorney firings?

Humetewa: I think the only thing that I can say to that is that my very first meeting with Attorney General [Michael] Mukasey [who replaced Gonzales] was unsolicited by me. I walked into his office, and he said to me, 'I want to hear about your experiences in Indian country.'

He said, 'You know, I've been a federal judge, I've been a federal prosecutor, but I've never handled an Indian country case, and I've not been to Indian country. I want to hear from you what that is like and what you can tell me about that.'

From there, I was able to provide him with a briefing about the work we have been doing in Arizona with respect to Indian country. And, I have to tell you, he was very, very focused on these issues. ... I definitely know that this attorney general is committed to these issues, and I know that he has, I'm sure, talked to other U.S. attorneys with Indian country jurisdiction.

ICT: Do you feel you have received enough support and resources to do your job well?

Humetewa: I think everyone can use more resources at all levels. I'm very happy with the support I'm getting from the attorney general's office, especially in the area of Indian country. I think it really says something about Attorney General Mukasey that one of the very first out of region visits he made was to Indian country, and it was here in Arizona. He has really taken to heart the issues facing Indian country. We have discussed those issues as they have arisen, and he is very interested.

ICT: Now, you were previously a tribal liaison in the office you now head - what did you learn in that position?

Humetewa: My responsibility as a tribal liaison under former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton ... was essentially to open communications with the 21 Indian tribes in Arizona with regard to the work this office does on both the criminal and civil side. That position, when it was created by the Department of Justice, was a recognition that this office has a federal fiduciary obligation to implement the Major Crimes Act with respect to violent felonies that occur in Indian country, and that we have a fiduciary responsibility in terms of federal agencies working in Indian country and the civil complaints that arise in those areas. We recognized that we had to be focusing strongly on tribal community needs.

ICT: As U.S. attorney, you've got a plethora of issues beyond Indian country to worry about. Do Indian justice issues continue to weigh heavily on your mind?

Humetewa: Yes, absolutely. I sit on the Native American Issues Subcommittee, which is a committee made up of U.S. attorneys who have Indian country jurisdiction. Our responsibility is to inform the attorney general about our issues, and therefore he is apprised of them. We suggest solutions, and we may come up with positions with respect to what we're doing in our offices. We have great responsibility to take our grass-roots knowledge of our districts up to the attorney general level. ...

ICT: Are you regularly in touch with tribal officials in your area?

Humetewa: About 90 percent of the violent crime cases from Indian communities in Arizona involve a tribal member and a tribal victim. I believe my responsibility is to ensure that I'm communicating with the tribal governments. They need to recognize, understand and be participants in this federal judicial system, because it has a direct impact on community members - both from the victim's side and from the defendant's side. If they're not participating in the work that's being done in our federal courts ... then they're missing a whole area of concern in their communities.

ICT: How do you get tribal officials to participate with you?

Humetewa: It's important to help the leaders of our tribal nations understand the reality that, today, this is their system, and they have to pay attention to it. ... It often has to happen on an individual level. I have met with several tribal leaders. ... We try to communicate the results of our cases to the tribal leadership, to tribal police departments and prosecutors. We want them to be aware that a lot of the work in Arizona is being done at the grass-roots level of tribal law enforcement. And we always welcome their input.

ICT: Is it emotionally draining to focus so much of your time on violent crimes in Indian country?

Humetewa: Yes, you do get depressed when you're dealing day after day with, you know, homicide referrals coming in, sexual abuse and assault referrals - but, for me, you have to find the positives in even that type of work. For me, the positives are building relationships with social service workers and police officers in our tribal communities who truly care about victims' rights, even with limited resources. ...

ICT: How much longer do you expect to hold your position?

Humetewa: Truthfully, I would hope to continue on in this position for a little longer, but those are decisions that I, quite frankly, try not to spend too much time thinking about. They're really out of my control.

ICT: Would you encourage more Native young people to dream of one day being a U.S. attorney?

Humetewa: Absolutely. I mean, it really is a different view. ... The experience that it brings to you and the experience that you can bring to it, especially if you're dealing with a district that has Indian country issues, I think is very unique. And you really can have an impact on local communities and how they view a federal agency.