The Good News Behind the Bad News About Crime and Violence in Indian Country


The Indian Law and Order Commission's report, A Roadmap for Making Native AmericaSafer bluntly described systemic public safety problems and the resulting devastation in Indian Country, especially for children. After the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing (February 2014) regarding ILOC's report, headlines blared the terrible news about crime, violence, substance abuse and sexual assault in Indian Country. What many articles overlooked in the sensational statistics was testimony that pointed to the effectiveness of solutions proposed by the committee, promising approaches already being effected by tribal communities, and the need for Congress to allocate stable public safety funding for tribes.

Rather than promising Congressional action, discussion about the prepared testimony focused on how agencies could support community-based, collaborative solutions, widely touted as the best approach.

Timothy Purdon, U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, spoke to the success of the Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys, who work closely with the tribes to determine jurisdiction and increase successful prosecutions. "Bringing those two forces together, it helps get convictions but it also increases the communication and the collaboration and the idea, we really become then more community prosecutors, [we] become part of that community." During later questioning, he described federal support for tribal community groups to support reentry, for tribes to develop cross-deputization agreements for law enforcement, or MOUs with states to support referral to tribal juvenile courts.

Affie Ellis, the ILOC Commissioner also testified to the effectiveness of partnerships in making positive change, with tribal communities enlisting private, non-profit, tribal, state and federal partners to achieve their vision of a healthy community. Tami Truett Jerue, Director of Social Services/Tribal Administrator, spoke of coordinating family services in a remote Alaskan village. She spoke about effecting positive change in individual lives as being "not as part of my job, but as part of my community." Ivan Posey, Chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, submitted written testimony that pointed to successes throughout Indian Country of youth programs that promote wellness and teach traditional values.

No matter what programs the ILOC committee pointed to as being successful, in spoken or written testimony, they kept returning to the persistent issues of resolving jurisdiction and ensuring a stable funding stream for court, law enforcement and health and social services systems. The Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association was particularly emphatic in outlining the arguments for moving away from grants-based funding for justice programs and towards a baseline model, where tribes are assured of a certain level of annual funding, and can direct the funds where they are needed to ensure public safety.

The Department of Justice does offer a streamlined grant system, under which tribes can apply for funding for a number of integrated programs to meet tribal needs. As anyone who has worked on a grant knows, and as the committee testified, these programs flourish, then die when the funding period runs out. The Senators on the committee acknowledged the issue and the outgoing Democratic leaders made no promises about what could be accomplished.

Senator Murkowski (R-AK), concluded the hearing by talking about what individuals can do to make our communities safer, and encouraging people to "do small things to make a difference." She admitted that policy makers had their part too, but tribes who are serious about making a difference are left with a clear message: find community partners and start strengthening your local systems as best you can, because funding and policy changes may be a long time coming out of Washington.

At one time early in the TLOA implementation process it was mentioned in one of many meetings there were twenty plus federal offices, bureaus, departments and agencies that hold some responsibility for implementing TLOA. Surely it is abundantly clear at his point there is a need for one entity to grab the reins and get busy ensuring tribes and the federal government are provided focus, coordination and direction to see this law become more than just another stack of paper. 

Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI special agent, deputy director of BIA law enforcement and is currently president of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates' Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.