IGNACIO – On the topic of public safety in tribal communities, U.S. attorneys had questions rather than answers for law-enforcement officials, prosecutors and victim-assistance workers attending the 23rd annual Four Corners Indian Country Conference on Wednesday.
Moderated by Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh, the panel discussion included U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates, Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery and Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter.
They said federal and tribal prosecutors are collaborating on “unprecedented levels” and working to empower attorneys to bring viable criminal cases to court.
With the intent of walking away with a list of priorities, officials listened to conference attendees as they spoke of scant funding, an insufficient number of full-time prosecutors and lack of pre-emptive measures to decrease violence, drug abuse, sexual assault and other crimes plaguing native communities.
Complaints ranged from victims falling through the cracks because too few victim advocates are serving the Navajo Nation, to a decline in criminal cases filed. Native American leaders also noted a cultural disconnect in outreach efforts
“It’s good that they have the federal resources and representatives to speak to opportunities that exist, but I didn’t see the cultural considerations and use of our resources to address trauma and violence in our communities,” said Loren Sekayumptewa, director of tribal services for the Southern Utes.
“Money can help to bring programs onto our nations and help with intervention and treatment, but in terms of healing trauma, you have to look at the holistic manner we treat them when they are violated,” she said. “Not just those in current times, but trauma has existed in our communities for many, many years.”
Sekayumptewa said Washington could learn by including more “cultural, traditional community leaders and healers” in outreach programs in order to bridge cultural gaps.
He added that manpower and funding are needed to counter a proliferating substance-abuse problem in tribal communities.
“It’s threatening our cultures and families,” Sekayumptewa said. “The Navajo Nation is constantly under siege. The root is alcohol and drugs. Our people are being ravaged by violence by those who engage in these behaviors.”
Sexual assault and violence is also prevalent in many reservations, and, according to Patrick Woods, a tribal prosecutor in Utah, must be handled more proactively. Raising awareness is as critical as post-incident outreach and therapy, he said.
“Sexual assault, in my opinion, is exceptionally hard to prosecute,” Woods said. “It’s embarrassing. We don’t get people that want to talk about it. I’ve had to prosecute cases where the daughter gets sexually assaulted, and auntie says: ‘Shake it off. Don’t worry about it. Move on.’ It’s been from years of neglect in this arena and (we’ve) created a monster. We need to address this when they’re young, and actively have the conversation that it’s not OK. We’re losing generations of mothers and daughters, and that’s the lifeblood of most of our tribal communities. They make these programs work, these court systems work and these families run.”
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice launched the Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation (CTAS) to help with the grant-application process for tribal communities to improve public safety and address other needs. More than 1,100 grants have been awarded thus far.
Though a crucial component, money alone cannot solve public-safety issues in native communities, Delery said.
Officials also said the Justice Department is committed to sustaining successful programs, like the Drug Endangered Children program, as well as a fairly new initiative to address needs of veterans in tribal communities.
Yates has spent 27 years working in the Justice Department, but admitted little knowledge of problems in native communities until she was appointed to her current position this year and she visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
“For the first time, I saw the unique issues you are dealing with,” Yates said. “It’s a little strange for me to be on the answer side of this. I’ve been deputy attorney general for a few months. One of the first things I wanted to do was get more plugged in.”
Yates told The Durango Herald that after Wednesday’s conference, she was astonished to learn about the frequency of sexual assault on reservations. Going forward, she wants to ensure the Justice Department officials take individually tailored approaches to addressing public safety in tribal communities.
“What may work and be important for one tribe is not the approach that will necessarily work somewhere else,” she said.