WASHINGTON – Rep. Herseth Sandlin spoke on a Public Safety and Housing panel at the White House Tribal Nations Conference Nov. 5.
While speaking at the conference earlier in the day, President Barack Obama praised Sandlin for her efforts to improve public safety in Indian country and endorsed her Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009. Below are Sandlin’s remarks:
I’m grateful to have the opportunity to join my friend and colleague Congressman (Tom) Cole, Secretary (Ken) Salazar, and representatives from the administration in speaking to you today. As South Dakota’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives, I am working with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that the federal government’s obligations to Indian country are upheld and fulfilled.
A special welcome today to members of the nine Sioux tribes located in South Dakota. Thank you for being here. It is an honor to represent you in Congress and a privilege to welcome you here today.
The federal government has a unique relationship with 562 federally-recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. This government-to-government relationship is established by our founders in the U.S. Constitution, recognized through hundreds of treaties, and reaffirmed through executive orders, judicial decisions, and Congressional action. Fundamentally, this relationship establishes the responsibilities to be carried out by one sovereign to the other.
That is why I’m so pleased that President Barack Obama is hosting this White House Tribal Nations Conference, so we can address critically important issues facing Indian country. After eight years of neglect and insufficient resources, the Obama Administration has demonstrated a renewed commitment to addressing the chronic problems plaguing Indian country.
This panel is dedicated to public safety and housing and there couldn’t be two more important issues for our communities in South Dakota.
Everyone deserves a safe and decent home. Yet sadly, in many parts of Indian country, the federal government has failed to provide the resources to tribes to meet this basic need. In particular, as I’ve learned from my time in many of South Dakota’s communities, Great Plains tribal housing authorities face difficult challenges. I was proud to vote for the Recovery Act earlier this year which includes $510 million for Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act funding and $20 million for BIA’s Housing Improvement Program. However, these resources will only begin to address the backlog of need to renovate, replace, and expand the housing stock on many reservations.
Equally important, public safety has reached a crisis level for many tribal communities in South Dakota and across the nation.
Native American families, like all families, deserve a basic sense of safety and security in their communities. Law enforcement is one of the federal government’s trust obligations to federally recognized tribes. Yet, as the tribes represented in this room today know all too well, on many counts, we are failing to meet that obligation and have done so for too many years.
Tragically, there is a pervasive sense of lawlessness in too many areas of Indian country. Less than 3,000 law enforcement officers patrol more than 56 million acres of Indian country. Let me repeat: 3,000 officers for 56 million acres. That reflects less than one-half of the law enforcement presence in comparable rural communities. On many Indian reservations, officers respond to emergency calls without backup and travel to remote locations without adequate radio communication.
The situation is particularly dire for large, land-based reservations. Tribal leaders in my state tell me of officers who cover hundreds of miles each shift. For example, at a 2007 Natural Resources Subcommittee field hearing in South Dakota on tribal law enforcement, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal chairman testified that his tribe had only three officers per shift to cover 19 communities and 15,000 people spread across an area almost the size of the state of Connecticut. The sheer size of these reservations, coupled with understaffed departments, outdated equipment, and high gas prices, strain tribal law enforcement efforts.
Clearly, the extent of the problem far exceeds the level of appropriations, and will continue to worsen until the federal government dedicates the resources necessary to address these problems. We must address the complex and broken system of law and order in Indian country.
One of the steps I have taken to address this need is to introduce the bipartisan Tribal Law and Order Act, which is a companion bill to legislation introduced by Senator (Byron) Dorgan in the Senate. Congressman Cole is a cosponsor of this bill and I thank him for his support.
This bill would clarify the responsibilities of federal, state, tribal, and local governments with respect to crimes committed in tribal communities; increase coordination and communication among federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement agencies; empower tribal governments with the authority, resources, and information necessary to effectively provide for the public’s safety in tribal communities; reduce the prevalence of violent crime in tribal communities and combat violence against Indian and Alaska Native women; address and prevent drug trafficking and reduce rates of alcohol and drug addiction in Indian country; and increase and standardize the collection of criminal data and the sharing of criminal history information among federal, state, and tribal officials responsible for responding to and investigating crimes in tribal communities.
I am very pleased to report that last week at the Tribal Nations Listening Session on Public Safety and Law Enforcement in St. Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the administration’s full support of the Tribal Law and Order Act, and earlier today, President Obama himself reiterated the administration’s support for the bill. I also understand that Sen. Dorgan’s bill, amended to address minor concerns expressed by the Department of Justice, was recently reported from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and may soon be considered by the full Senate. In the House, we hope to begin holding hearings on this legislation in both the Natural Resources and Judiciary Committees in the near future.
Clearly, this bill alone will not solve the problems faced by tribes. I will continue to work for increased funding for law enforcement personnel, detention facilities, equipment and training, tribal courts, and other components required for a successful justice system. I will continue to hold the Bureau of Indian Affairs accountable for upholding the trust responsibility within the realm of law enforcement.
Let me say again: Native American families, like all families, deserve to raise their children and live their lives with a basic sense of safety. Congress must act to fulfill our trust responsibilities to these tribes by fully funding existing programs and enacting the Tribal Law and Order Act. Ultimately, I believe that this bill offers important and necessary tools in our shared goal of making Indian country a safer place to be.
I look forward to the rest of this session and thank all of you for being here and for your dedication to the health and safety of our Native Americans communities. Pilayama!