ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The U.S. Department of Justice is committed to helping American Indian communities battle a rising tide of violence against women and children, gang activity and other crime, a top agency official said Sept. 21.
Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli said Indian communities have done a tremendous job fighting crime considering their limited resources, but it’s clear more needs to be done.
“We all recognize the only way to address these problems is through a long-term and sustained effort,” he said. “That’s what we at the Department of Justice are committed to doing – finding concrete solutions that we can implement right away and deciding what are the best long-term strategies we can work on together as partners.”
Perrelli and other agency officials were meeting Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 in Albuquerque with Indian leaders and law enforcement experts as part of a national initiative to address tribal justice. The meetings will set the stage for a listening session that Attorney General Eric Holder has planned for all tribal leaders next month in Minnesota.
The Justice Department’s renewed attention to issues that have plagued Indian country for decades has instilled hope in Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. and the governors of several New Mexico pueblos.
“Every time there’s an election, new leadership comes in and that new leadership sometimes doesn’t know what’s going on out there in Native America,” Shirley said. “They have to get educated, and I think that’s what these work sessions are about. The more they know, the better position they’re in to help us.”
On the sprawling Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, Shirley said gangs are running rampant and alcoholism and substance abuse have led to domestic violence, drunken driving and other crimes.
“The crime rate is high on Navajo land. We’ve done everything we can ourselves to try to address those issues, but we need more help,” he said.
Some help came Sept. 21 with Perrelli announcing more than $82 million in federal grants for public safety and criminal justice initiatives on the Navajo Nation and at several New Mexico pueblos.
Nearly all the money will be used to build or renovate correctional facilities on tribal land to provide space for more offenders. The remainder of the grants, which are funded with federal stimulus dollars, will pay for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention programs and youth programs aimed at keeping children out of trouble.
Nationwide, DOJ awarded more than $224 million in stimulus funds for jail construction and nearly $12 million for juvenile justice system improvements in Indian country.
Norman Cooeyate, governor of Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico, said the Clinton administration laid the foundation for addressing crime in Indian communities more than a decade ago. He said the Bush administration tried to add to that but with little success.
The new administration, Cooeyate said, has been more aggressive in acknowledging Indians’ concerns.
Still, he said it will be up to tribal leaders to continue pressuring the federal government to live up to its trust responsibilities.
“Tribal leaders have to stay active. They have to stay vocal,” Cooeyate said. “Without that voice, we can’t change things.”
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