WASHINGTON – With a non-Native picked to lead the U.S. Department of Justice’s Native American Issues Subcommittee, some are taking the opportunity to highlight the importance of Indian inclusion within the national legal scene.
It was announced the week of Nov. 16 that Brendan Johnson, the U.S. attorney for South Dakota, was chosen by the Obama administration to head the committee, which is made up of federal prosecutors who serve in jurisdictions with large numbers of Indians.
The newcomer to the national scene was confirmed to his top lawyer position in October. He is the son of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, a longtime advocate of Native American issues on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Those who know the younger Johnson expect him to continue on his father’s path while leading the committee, which is intended to advise Attorney General Eric Holder on public safety and legal issues in Indian country.
Danna Jackson, a tribal law expert with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP who knows Johnson personally and once worked for his dad, said the appointment is an indication that Holder intends to follow through on commitments he made at a recent Indian country consultation session in Minnesota.
“As a former state prosecutor, Johnson understands the need for intergovernmental solutions to the complex matrix of Indian country jurisdiction,” Jackson assessed.
“Certainly, he understands Congress, which is also critical, if true solutions to the funding and jurisdictional quandaries are to be addressed. Finally, Johnson has a long and positive relationship with the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people in his state of South Dakota. He ‘gets it.’”
John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, confirmed that tribal leaders from Johnson’s region have expressed favorable reactions. But many are waiting for more.
“We want to see improvements in law enforcement before anything for sure,” Dossett said.
“It’s good to have him, and we are optimistic about him, but we have to wait and see how he handles various Indian country issues.”
Dossett added that many would like to see more Native Americans hired by and promoted within Justice to address Indian country legal matters.
He noted that the confirmation of Mary Smith, a member of the Cherokee Nation, to serve as assistant attorney general at the department has been held up in the Senate for months due to political maneuvering.
In late October, NCAI sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., regarding the slow progress.
“It is widely known among tribal leaders that her nomination has been pending for an overly long period, and the frustration is growing,” wrote Jefferson Keel, NCAI president.
If confirmed, Smith would be the highest ranking Native American at the department.
He said Johnson has a real opportunity to do more with the committee.
“The subcommittee chair can be a leader in explaining to Congress the merits of expanding tribal jurisdiction to include non-Indians, especially if done carefully in the ‘opt-in’ manner some have proposed, where tribes can qualify for jurisdiction if they meet certain minimal constitutional requirements.
“DoJ is one of the opponents of an Oliphant fix, and for the life of me, given the dramatic improvements in tribal court capacity and competence in the last 20 years, I don’t really understand why.
“Brendan Johnson should be advocating for a complete Indian country crime bill that recognizes tribes as the primary law enforcers, and the U.S. to handle crimes with more of a federal focus (drugs, immigration, etc.). I suspect the chair usually focuses on raising awareness of the issue, but now it’s time to enact real fixes.”
Upon learning of his selection for the position, Johnson noted the importance of the committee to Indian country.
“The work of NAIS is vital to ensuring that residents of tribal communities can live and raise their families in safe and healthy environments.”
As part of the political appointee process, the Obama administration in August fired Diane J. Humetewa, the first female Native American U.S. attorney. She is a citizen of the Hopi Tribe.